Whenever I saw the building site of the new airport from outside of a plane window when landing in Schönefeld over the past few years (BBI or BER as people now call the project that could eventually dethrone Czar Wowereit), I always thought, "That looks awfully small." Turns out my hunch was right.
By the time the new airport goes into operation next year, and assuming it actually does, it will be already be operating at maximum capacity. BER is designed for 27 million passengers annually. By the end of this year, Tegel and Schönefeld, running in emergency mode following the postponement of the BER opening, will have processed at least 25 million passengers. At the current rate of growth, it's not hard to imagine 27 million passengers going through BER as Berlin's single airport in 2013. Okay, you can probably squeeze a few million more people through BER, the way the corridors of Schönefeld are now filled with travellers on the floor, with weary people in every corner, the reek of sweat wafting through the building. But by around 2017-2018, it will be time for a new terminal. And another few hundred million euros – on top of the €1 billion added to the bill by the delay. And, according to my unscientific calculations, BER will have to double in size by 2022.
Maybe Berlin should try something different. Maybe endless growth in air travel is not necessarily desirable. The financial cost, the noise pollution, kerosene contamination of lakes, the CO2 emissions, the legal battles. Maybe Berlin – so fond of hyping its green-ness, creativity and non-conformism to the rest of the world – should actually do something progressive and groundbreaking for a change, and put a limit on air travel.
Ban flights within Germany and nearby foreign cities like Prague, Copenhagen and Warsaw. Pump money into high-speed trains and make them cheaper than flying. Actively encourage people to ride share.
Maybe Berlin could take the lead for a change, instead of always trying to play catch-up. It would take a visionary leader – and would be a hard sell to all. Even green-voting, Christiania-bike-riding types love the odd fortnight in Cuba.
The number of annual flights per person could be rationed. No more ridiculous commuting to London for work. How many weekend breaks in Barcelona do you really need? And perhaps tourism could reinvent itself in a more sustainable fashion.
Of course none of this will happen anytime soon. It would be a challenge for business, for tourism, for long distance relationships. But at some point jet fuel won't be the bargain it is today. Something will have to happen.
Maybe once Wowereit has lost his job over the BER disaster, someone with some vision will step up to the plate.