A chaotic weekend at Berlin’s ‌BER highlights COVID’s impact on aviation‌

A year after finally opening, Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) is once again making news for all the wrong reasons. This time, over the weekend of October 8-10, 2021, reports emerged of long lines of passengers waiting to check in. This resulted in many missing their flights and was followed by complaints from travelers having to wait several hours for their bags upon landing. 

AeroTime takes a look at how the problems experienced by the German capital city airport provide a snapshot of how, even as it tries to recover, the COVID-19 pandemic is still firmly leaving its mark on the aviation industry. 

BER opened in October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic and when lockdown regulations in many countries prevented travel. As an airport, it has never really experienced peak travel periods. 

Fast forward a year later and traffic levels are picking up, both at BER and elsewhere in Europe. However, BER Terminals 2 and 5 remain closed and the airport is still only using one of its two runways at a time. Many airport and ground staff continue to be on short-term working measures implemented during the height of the crisis. 

But in October 2021, BER’s Terminal 1 suddenly looked horribly full. After lessons ended on October 8, schools in Berlin and Brandenburg broke up for two weeks and many families, desperate for a getaway after a year and a half of COVID-19 restrictions, booked flights for the period. 

The operator of Berlin airport knew more passengers than usual were expected. It even issued a press statement on October 7, 2021, which said that it expected between 60,000 and 65,000 passengers a day on October 8 and October 10. Previously, the busiest day for the new airport was September 17, 2021, when it handled over 60,000 passengers. 

The airport also predicted 900,000 passengers over the two-week school vacation, a sharp rise from the 335,000 passengers for the same period in October 2020. Still, that’s only half of the 1.8 million passengers that predecessor airports Schoenefeld and Tegel handled during the school break in October 2019. 

Despite this, check-in delays on October 8-10 were so long that many passengers missed flights even after arriving the recommended two hours ahead of their flight time. Baggage loading and unloading was also taking time, compounded by the late arrival of flights. Many passengers took to social media to vent their frustration, with videos and pictures showing long lines at the airport and people sleeping by baggage reclaim. 

Overload of capacities

For global aviation services company Swissport, which provides passenger and ground services including check-in, gate handling and baggage handling at BER, the situation has resulted in it sending senior management to Berlin in response. It has also asked experienced service agents from other European Swissport stations, including Zurich and Helsinki, to help out in the German capital. 

“We are doing our utmost to ensure a more stable operation,” spokesman Christoph Meier told AeroTime. He cited several factors, such as lower levels of experienced staff because many have left during the pandemic, and a large number of flight delays, putting staffing levels out of sync with flight schedules. 

Meier added: “On Saturday, the expected holiday travel peak and high weekend travel coincided with average flight delays. Toward the end of the day, this led to a temporary overload of capacities. We reacted swiftly and brought in additional staff from across Europe to support us going forward ” 

The delayed flights towards the end of the day were especially problematic because baggage staff were nearing the end of their shift. Like flight crew, they also have maximum duty times.

Some passengers were left waiting at the airport until 3am for bags to arrive from flights that had landed four hours earlier on October 9, 2021. The delays meant that many other staff, such as security, customs and cleaning staff, also had to stay on later than usual to wait for the last passengers to leave the building. Berlin airport has a restriction on night flights, which means that no passenger planes can land between midnight and 5am local time. This usually leaves the airport empty of passengers overnight. 

How to cope in future

A spokesman for Berlin airport told AeroTime that the delays experienced by passengers at check-in were down to the extra time needed to check COVID-19 documentation, plus a shortage of staff. 

“We are speaking with all our partners and evaluating the situation, in order to avoid staff shortages in the future,” spokesman Jan-Peter Haack wrote in an emailed statement. “Airlines want to use more check-in counters, which the airport will make available.”

The airport is also evaluating the reasons behind the large number of delayed flights. Meanwhile, Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) is advising passengers to be at the airport four hours in advance of their flight. 

When asked how Berlin would cope with a return to pre-crisis levels of passengers, Haack highlighted that the airport still has two terminals that it can use, adding that the company could react flexibly to demand. 

Swissport’s Meier noted that the pandemic has left its mark on the company. Swissport had to lay off more than 20,000 staff as a result of the pandemic, or around one-third of its workforce, taking employee numbers to about 45,000. Of those, around 11,000 are on furlough. The company is currently in the middle of a recruitment drive, but notes that in some regions, such as the United States, it is difficult to find staff.

Staffing issues have also been a factor in the disruption seen at Southwest Airlines (LUV) over the last few days. The airline cited “strain on crew resources” after weather and ATC delays on October 8, 2021 created a knock-on effect that has so far resulted in hundreds of flight cancellations. 



Meier also highlighted that while aviation companies are aware of expected peaks in traffic related to holiday periods, COVID-19 has put a big strain on the whole aviation system, which has been operating at low levels for well over a year now. Many are simply out of practise at handling large numbers of travelers. Swissport says the number of aircraft turns it completed in August 2021 was 45% below the August 2019 level and the number of passengers 58% lower. On a positive note, its cargo operations are 8% above pre-crisis levels. 

“Holiday weekends are like before the crisis. But the problem is, no one’s used to running at top speed any more,” Meier commented. “It’s the responsibility of the whole system to deal with this.”

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