Berlin Brandenburg Airport may once have been best known for its much delayed opening, but it has weathered an exceptionally tricky first year and has big ambitions, chief operating officer Patrick Muller tells Tara Craig.
There must have been times over the years between the design and opening of Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) that its stakeholders – and indeed the wider public – thought that its first day of operations would never come. What no one could have imagined, however, was that the airport would open during a global pandemic. Chief operating officer Patrick Muller summed it up neatly by saying: “I guess it's fair to say it was a difficult first year for the airport.”
Muller believes that BER was the first airport to carry out an ORAT (operational readiness and airport transfer) programme during a pandemic, despite the challenges posed by having to limit the number of people they could have in a room at any one time. “You prepare for mass trials with maybe 2,000 passengers. None of that was possible,” he told Airports International.
The airport finally opened on October 31, 2020, with the second lockdown coming into force shortly afterwards and traffic levels plummeting to 10% of 2019 figures. Germany’s government-driven furlough scheme kicked in, paying employees some 60% of their salary, which the airport topped up, enabling BER to avoid letting anyone go.
Furloughing staff who had just started work in a newly opened airport wasn’t without its difficulties, though.
As Muller explained: “The challenge that you then have is that you have a brand-new airport. Our previous airports were not very system heavy – for instance, we had a classic key for opening doors. Then we moved to a new facility where everything is automated. It’s very system process driven.
“And for staff, that's a big change. So you train them for about six months, seven months. They’re good to go. They start operating and then traffic breaks down. So you send them home and then how do you make sure that, when traffic comes back, your staff and the staff of your stakeholders are ready to operate?”
BER had to invest substantial effort, time, money and manpower in retraining its staff ahead of May, when traffic slowly started to pick up again.
By July 2021, according to Muller, it still wasn’t clear whether traffic would bounce back rapidly. August was better than expected, and when we spoke at the end of September, traffic was slowly picking up. The news that the United States had agreed to accept vaccinated passengers was cause for optimism.
Muller was keen to put the situation into context. He said: “Just to give you a few numbers, we handled around 24 million passengers at Berlin Tegel Airport in 2019 and almost 12 million at Berlin- Schönefeld. That makes almost 36 million passengers. We are now looking at just under 10 million this year.
“On the one hand, it may be an operational advantage, because we can get used to the new facility with less traffic. But on the other hand, of course, the income is missing. And financially, this is a very bad year. Like everybody in the aviation industry, we're suffering.”
In the terminal
BER's retailers are all back online. However, according to Muller, staff recruitment and retention are proving difficult, with many people choosing instead to work in COVID testing and vaccination centres. Retail facilities are therefore not in a position to operate a two-shift model and are unable to offer their usual opening hours. To ameliorate this, the airport has installed additional vending machines, which have proven popular with travellers who are keen for a contactless airport experience.
Many hygiene-minded passengers have opted to travel to the airport by car rather than by public transport. This, explained Muller, has led to growth in parking revenues.
The new rail terminal below the airport has also had a positive impact on the number of passengers travelling to the airport by public transport. This is something BER wants to see more of, and the airport is encouraging airlines to promote rail-and-fly offerings.
Visiting friends and relatives (VFR) was the first of the main passenger groups to fly again, according to Muller, beginning as early as March this year. He added: “As soon as COVID-19 numbers fell, you could see countries opening up. And that was crucial for the pick-up of traffic.
“You could clearly see that needing to quarantine on arrival in a country has had a very big impact on traffic and passenger figures. We saw visiting friends and relatives coming back first, then in the summer we saw holidaymakers coming back en masse. We handled around 1.5 million passengers in August and September, and a big part of that was, of course, holidaymakers.”
BER has also seen business traffic coming back in recent weeks, as evidenced by outbound passenger numbers increasing on Mondays and incoming traffic growing on Fridays.
In the short term, said Muller, “We need the US to come back. That will trigger a lot of business travel and also VFR. We desperately need Asia to pick up – and we are confident that this is beginning to happen.”
Singapore’s recent decision to expand its vaccinated travel lanes to include seven European countries was a cause for some cheer. On October 20, low-cost carrier Scoot, a Singapore Airlines subsidiary, resumed non-stop flights to Singapore, with passengers no longer required to quarantine on arrival.
In ‘normal’ times, Muller noted, BER’s passenger demographic is relatively evenly split between business, VFR and tourism, although there are some regional differences.
The long-haul holy grail
Muller admits that long-haul traffic has not historically been Berlin’s strength, “simply because Berlin was not on the agenda of any of the big carriers.” What was different in those days was that it had a strong home base carrier that was flying long-haul, the now defunct Air Berlin.
Muller explained further: “Long-haul is directly linked to the traffic rights situation in Europe and in Germany in particular. Quite a few airlines have expressed interest in flying into Berlin, Emirates among them. They would love to fly to Berlin, but they have issues in terms of traffic rights and that's what's stopping them. But if we could resolve this issue, then we would have a very, very good chance of seeing Emirates and other airlines flying to Berlin. Traffic rights cause us problems with both the Middle East and Asia.”
Muller is frank about the traffic rights situation. The problem, he told Airports International, is that there are national carriers with close relationships with the German government, that do not welcome additional traffic rights, “purely out of personal interest” – that is, to avoid competition. To remedy this, he added, BER will have to continue lobbying at a political level.
However, an open skies agreement means that serving the US is relatively easy and Muller is hopeful that prepandemic levels of traffic between Berlin and North America will return. United Airlines recently confirmed that it will fly from BER to Newark from March 2022 and to Washington DC from May.
Asked for a long-haul destination dream scenario, Muller told Airports International: “Thailand, for one, because we believe that's a route that would be of interest to many passengers and we are pretty sure it would work financially. Then, of course, China would be an important destination. And I believe that connecting us to the Middle East would allow additional options for transferring at different hubs and maybe creating a much better offering. You know, you're flying six hours, then you have a stop. And we believe that India will become a very important market in the future. ”
Muller is keeping an eye on the political and economic situation in South America, but continues to see North America, including Canada, as offering great potential, in particular the likes of Toronto and Montreal.
In terms of short- and medium-haul routes, Muller said: “The airlines are agile and fast to identify additional markets”. He mentions the ‘warm water destinations’ of the Mediterranean and the routes connecting Berlin-based Turks, Egyptians and Tunisians, for instance, with their home countries.
“And then, of course, you have the traffic between the capital cities. And that includes destinations which wouldn't come to mind immediately, such as Reykjavik,” he added.
The German airport conundrum
BER may be the capital’s airport, but it is somewhat in the shadow of the larger German airports, in particular Munich. Asked whether this will change, Muller points to the cost of developing a hub and notes that, in terms of competition, BER is up against not just Munich or even Frankfurt, but Zurich and Vienna – all Lufthansa Group hubs. He continued: “Lufthansa has invested in its four hubs and they're pretty well set up. I cannot imagine that Lufthansa would create a new hub in Berlin. Other than Lufthansa or the now non-existent Air Berlin, it would be difficult to find an airline that would invest in Berlin and make it a hub similar to Frankfurt or Munich.”
Muller is happy to see BER focus on the short- to medium-haul markets for now, backed by the likes of easyJet and Ryanair, both of which are promoting outgoing traffic, which he refers to as the airport’s “bread and butter.” He is conscious, however, of the city’s status as Germany’s capital and said: “Berlin being the capital of Germany, we as the airport operator believe that it deserves long-haul direct flights into the US, into Asia, into all parts of the world. That’s one of the reasons we're working towards more long-haul traffic, but we don't see Berlin as a hub yet.”
The Terminal 5 question
At the present time, Terminal 5 – the former Berlin-Schönefeld Airport – remains closed. Asked whether it might make a permanent home for Ryanair, Muller told Airports International: “Ryanair has moved to the new Terminal 1 and seems to be quite happy there. Ideally, from an operational perspective, concentrating all your traffic in the midfield is best. Split operation is always going to be difficult.
“We don’t know when Terminal 5 will reopen. It very much depends on traffic and we are yet to decide who will be operating out of the terminal. We will engage with our customers and our airlines and will discuss with them as and when it's appropriate. From a sequencing perspective, we will continue operating in Terminal 1 and then bring Terminal 2 online. And once this capacity is no longer sufficient, we will look into Terminal 5 reopening.”
Terminal 5’s reopening date is not the only uncertainty Muller is dealing with. As he explained, the pandemic has made forecasting much more difficult: “The forecast before COVID-19 was very easy. I could predict the number of passengers at the end of the year by maybe plus or minus 100,000 passengers. I knew the market was growing, I knew which new destinations were going to be introduced and I knew my airline customers’ plans. This has all become very difficult.”
But running an airport, even a newly opened one, in a pandemic has its benefits.
“It made us become more agile and more flexible,” Muller said. “And I believe it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to aviation and to the airport business, because we could do with some more innovation, we could do with some more agility. And we've been forced to go through it, which all in all wasn't a bad thing. It allows you to look at things in a different way and to not take things for granted.”
Not just about passengers
One area of its operations that BER has certainly begun to look at differently is cargo. Like many airports, the pandemic opened its eyes to cargo’s importance as a revenue stream.
“You know, when we talked to airlines prior to 2019 about long haul, they always said: ‘Additional cargo is always good, but the most important thing is that the cabin is full.’ That has completely turned around. When you talk to airlines that were flying during the pandemic, for example, Qatar Airways, they say: ‘Actually it's fine to have some passengers in the cabin. That helps pay for the flights, but the majority of the revenue is generated by cargo’,” Muller recalled.
“So we believe that if we want to be successful in the development of long haul traffic, cargo will play a big part. That's number one. Number two, we can see that e-trading and e-commerce are playing an ever increasing part in cargo. We see our FedEx, AT&T, DHL traffic continuously increasing. And that is not going to fall in the future.”
Muller is convinced that the pandemic driven increase in home shopping is here to stay, mentioning the nearby Amazon warehouse as evidence. He expects the online retailing giant to start flying to Berlin, and the airport is already in talks with the likes of TNT and FedEx to make sure it understands their cargo needs. BER’s cargo facility, according to Muller, is sufficient for current traffic. The airport is transforming a recently bought site into an express cargo facility and has additional space, should further cargo facilities be required.
Looking to the future
Now that it’s up and running, what sets BER apart? Muller believes that what makes his airport unique is its strong connections with the public transport system. He also believes that it’s a very passenger-friendly facility: “We would like Berlin to be known as a friendly, easy, accessible and efficient operation. That’s what we're working towards in terms of public perception.”
As for that much discussed delay, what has been learned? Muller told Airports International: “We've learnt a few things. One, that politicians are not very good at planning and constructing airports. And two, once you have a design, you shouldn't change it. You have to stick to it, you have to finish construction and then you have to do what every other airport does – you have to adapt your facility to the needs of the users. Those are the two big lessons from the delay, at least from my perspective, and without going into too much detail.”
It’s hard to argue with that.