Review: Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER)

While I usually review flights, airport lounges, and hotels, in this case I’ll be reviewing an airport (it’s the first airport-specific review I’ve done since the new Istanbul Airport). We’re not just talking about any airport, but rather about the infamous Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which opened on October 31, 2020.

The significance of Berlin Brandenburg Airport

Berlin Brandenburg Airport is kind of in a league of its own when it comes to disastrous airport construction projects:

  • Construction on the airport started back in 2006
  • The airport was initially supposed to open in March 2011, but ended up opening in October 2020, so it was nearly 10 years behind schedule
  • The airport was supposed to cost €2.83 billion, but has cost around €7 billion in the end

What all went wrong? This post has a detailed rundown of everything that has happened, though to summarize:

  • In mid 2010 the construction company behind the airport went bankrupt, delaying the project
  • In mid 2012 huge issues were discovered with the smoke exhaust systems at the airport, delaying the opening (it was later discovered that bribes were involved here)
  • In early 2013 there were management changes at the airport, given the management’s team inability to get things done
  • In mid 2016 they had issues getting the transport certification needed to open
  • In 2017 airberlin went out of business, raising concerns for the airport, as this was supposed to be the largest airline, making the owners rethink part of the design

Suffice to say that this isn’t the shining example of German efficiency.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) review

I figured I had to visit the new Brandenburg Airport during my time in Berlin. While I was initially going to plan a review trip out of Berlin, this came during Germany’s lockdown, and I decided it was best to just visit the airport without actually flying anywhere. For what it’s worth, I visited the airport midday on a Wednesday.

To visit the airport I booked a refundable ticket. That’s not something I’d usually do, but in this case it seemed like the best option. I had been invited to a media event back when the airport opened, but I always prefer to get the “real” experience, since a media event will rarely give you a real sense of what to expect, as everyone is on their best behavior.

I was looking forward to experiencing the airport firsthand. The reviews I had seen of the airport from those who had already visited ranged from negative to mildly positive. I saw some commentary along the lines of “this is the capital city airport we’ve been waiting a decade for, really?!” And I’ve seen others say “I guess it’s pretty nice.” However, I hadn’t heard anyone say “wow, what an incredible airport.”

Getting to Berlin Brandenburg Airport

The biggest downside to the new airport (for many) is the location. While Berlin is a sprawling city, Tegel Airport was only a 15 minute drive from many parts of the city, while Brandenburg Airport is about a 30 minute drive from many parts of the city.

The best way to reach the airport by public transportation is with the Flughafen Express (FEX), which takes about 30 minutes from Berlin Central Station.

The convenience of the public transportation options really varies depending on what part of town you’re in. For example, where I stay in Kreuzberg, it takes under 30 minutes by car, or over an hour by public transportation.

So from some areas public transportation is practical, while it’s less practical from other parts of town.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport terminals

For context, Berlin Brandenburg Airport has three terminals:

  • Terminal 1, which is the main new terminal now open
  • Terminal 2, which is supposed to be for low cost carriers, but which is being kept closed for the time being due to the pandemic
  • Terminal 5, which is in fact the former Schönefeld Airport, but which has been rebranded as Brandenburg Airport Terminal 5; this is located on the opposite side of the runway of Terminal 1

For context, below is a map that gives you a sense of the distance between Terminal 1 & Terminal 5.

The distance between terminals at Berlin Brandenburg Airport

The review will be focused on Terminal 1, since that’s the new terminal that’s currently open. Nothing has actually changed about Terminal 5 (other than the name), and Terminal 2 isn’t open, so…

Berlin Brandenburg Airport check-in hall

I’d say the nicest and most impressive part of Berlin Brandenburg Airport is the exterior and check-in hall. Terminal 1 has an all-glass exterior that spans several floors, so in that sense this feels like a major international airport. Keep in mind that even though this is a new airport, construction started in 2006, so aspects of the architecture aren’t exactly cutting edge.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 exterior

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 exterior

The check-in hall is large and well signed, and the focal point is the staircases and elevators leading to the lower level, which have some sort of red netting art display hanging above them.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 check-in hall

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 check-in hall

The below two pictures give you a sense of the width of the terminal.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport check-in counters

Berlin Brandenburg Airport check-in counters

As is the case at many airports, there’s no permanent airline-specific branding at any of the check-in desks, but rather only the screens indicate which airline is using a check-in desk (the flight status monitors also indicate the check-in desk for each airline). The landside area is broken up into nine zones.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport check-in counters

Berlin Brandenburg Airport check-in counters

Berlin Brandenburg Airport security & airside

The security checkpoint is located along the interior of the check-in hall. You have to scan your boarding pass to get through a gate, and then you can choose from over a dozen security lanes (well, at least when the airport is fully operational — only a few lanes were open when I was there, given how quiet the airport was).

Berlin Brandenburg Airport security checkpoint

Security was easy, and then I found myself in a duty free maze, as is the case in so many international airports.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport duty free

Just outside the duty free shops you’re in the central airside area, which also feels pretty grand.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 airside

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 airside

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1 airside

To give you a sense of the BER Terminal 1 airside layout, the terminal is essentially in a “U” shape. The “A” gates are in one direction, while the “B” gates are in the other direction. Lounge Tempelhof is deep into the “A” gates, while Lounge Tegel and the Lufthansa Lounge are deep into the “B” gates.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport map

Berlin Brandenburg Airport gates

While the check-in hall and initial airside area are impressive, the gate areas leave a bit to be desired, in my opinion. Essentially the rest of the terminal consists of fairly narrow hallways with low ceilings that take you the entire length of the terminal.

In one direction you have the “A” gates, and in the other direction you have the “B” gates. Now of course the terminal felt really empty when I visited, but I’d imagine once demand recovers, this terminal could feel absolutely packed, with thousands of people going down these halls to catch their flights.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport gates

In some cases the walking distances are quite significant, especially without moving sidewalks. I’d estimate it would be a roughly 20 minute walk from one end of the “A” gates to the other end of the “B” gates. Then again, I’m guessing not too many people will be connecting at Brandenburg Airport, since it’s an airport where people are largely either originating or terminating.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport gates

Berlin Brandenburg Airport gates

Berlin Brandenburg Airport gates

Throughout the terminal there are illuminated screens that just advertise the airport. I imagine they’re looking to have third party ads there, but I’d imagine airport marketing isn’t too lucrative right now.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport advertisement

Perhaps what’s most disappointing is the lack of outlets in the gate areas. This is one of those things that really shows you that the terminal was designed over a decade ago, when that wasn’t as much of a necessity.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport departure gate

Berlin Brandenburg Airport gate seating area

As an avgeek who loves photographing planes from the terminal, another downside is that the planes are parked quite a distance from the terminal. So don’t expect to get many good airplane shots here (though do notice all the EasyJet planes parked on the apron).

Berlin Brandenburg Airport apron

Also, in case you’re doubting this airport is already rather old (despite being new), here’s one of the newer elevators in the airport, which was built in 2011.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport elevator from 2011

Berlin Brandenburg Airport lounges

Here’s the current lounge situation at Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1:

  • Lounge Tempelhof is already open, and is located by the A Gates in Terminal 1; the 910 square meter lounge has a capacity of 200 guests
  • Lounge Tegel is expected to open in spring 2021, and is located by the B Gates in Terminal 1; the 660 square meter lounge will have a capacity of 120 guests
  • The Lufthansa Business & Senator Lounge is located in the A Gates in Terminal 1

I’ll review the Lufthansa Lounge in a subsequent installment. Meanwhile I tried to visit Lounge Tempelhof, except it’s not yet open to Priority Pass members, and I didn’t think it was worth spending 45 EUR to access a lounge that doesn’t even have any food or drinks (due to the current lockdown). Hopefully this is accessible with Priority Pass in the future.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport Terminal 1

Berlin Brandenburg Airport wifi

Brandenburg Airport has free wifi throughout the terminal. You just have to connect with one click, and there’s no personal information needed.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport wifi

Berlin Brandenburg Airport baggage claim

I swear I’ve been to an airport before, but I actually kind of struggled to get out. First of all, there’s no exit near the center of the terminal, but rather the exits are in the individual piers. Fair enough, as that’s a smart way to avoid too much crowding in one area.

However, something about the signage to exit didn’t make sense. I followed the signage towards an exit, and somehow ended up in an elevator that got me nowhere. So then I had to backtrack, and eventually made it out. I think there’s room for improvement when it comes to signage for the exits.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport baggage claim exit

The baggage claim area as such is unremarkable.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport baggage claim

Berlin Brandenburg Airport baggage claim

The exit is on the lower level, and there were plenty of taxis there (and this is also where Ubers pick up).

Berlin Brandenburg Airport exit

What’s my take on Berlin Brandenburg Airport?

I’d say I have a mildly favorable impression of the airport:

  • Is this the greatest airport in the world? Absolutely not
  • Was it better than some of the negative reviews I’ve read about the airport? Yes, I think so, by a little
  • How does this compare to other airports in Germany? Well, the only halfway decent airport in Germany that I’ve visited is Munich Airport, and in some ways this airport is better, and in other ways it’s not

Beyond that I have a few general thoughts, in no particular order:

  • It’s so cool to finally see Brandenburg Airport open, after a delay of so many years; I almost figured it would never happen
  • While Tegel Airport was objectively pretty bad, it had a great location, and it was super quick to get from check-in to your gate, and those are two areas where Brandenburg Airport can’t compete
  • There are aspects of Brandenburg Airport that are nice, in particular the check-in hall and the airside
  • There are other aspects of Brandenburg Airport I don’t love, like the fairly small piers leading to gates, and the lack of outlets in the gate seating areas
  • The airport is quirky in a way you’d expect — it feels like a brand new airport that’s also about a decade past its prime in some ways

There’s no doubt that Brandenburg Airport “feels” more appropriate for Germany’s capital airport than the old Tegel Airport.

Bottom line

Berlin Brandenburg Airport has finally opened, after a horrible journey up to that point. This is arguably the most interesting new airport to have opened in recent times.

The airport itself is quite nice, and offers an improved passenger experience in terms of the architecture, facilities, etc. That being said, some people will likely miss Tegel Airport for how close it was to the city, and how easy it was to get to the gates.

What do you make of Berlin Brandenburg Airport?