Air Berlin sues airport operator over Brandenburg delay

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Air Berlin is taking legal action against Berlin's airport operator, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg, after the two companies were unable to hammer out a compensation deal over the delayed opening of the German capital's new airport.

The new flagship hub, Berlin Brandenburg, was due to open in June this year, but in May its operator announced a delay, initially of 10 months, but which then grew to a little over a year-and-a-half. Air Berlin claims it has incurred "tens of millions [of euros]" in additional costs and other losses because it was unable to move to the new facility as planned.

As a result, on 6 November the airline lodged a request at a regional court in Potsdam asking for judicial confirmation that it is entitled to damages.

Hartmut Mehdorn, Air Berlin chief executive, says that legal action is the "only feasible route" to safeguard the carrier's interests. The airline has been trying to find a "mutually acceptable solution" with the airport operator for months, he says, but has been unable to reach an agreement, despite "many intensive discussions".

Air Berlin was particularly hard-hit by the late opening of Brandenburg. It had expanded its summer schedule from Berlin to tie-in with the start of operations at the new airport. The 230 additional weekly flights - launched with the expectation of greater capacity at Brandenburg - are now being handled at Berlin Tegel.

Air Berlin says Tegel, operated by the same company and due to shut when the new hub is operational, is full and offers "neither the capacity nor quality" of the Brandenburg terminal "even with the most committed engagement of the airport staff [at Tegel]".

The carrier is concerned that weather-related disruptions during the coming winter months will further compromise its operations.

However, Rainer Schwarz, chief executive of the airport operator, says he is not surprised by Air Berlin's recourse to legal action. The two sides were "far apart" in their negotiations, he says. In addition, he believes the carrier will be unable to claim compensation because "we did not contractually agree a fixed opening date with the airline".

Construction of Brandenburg began in 2004, with a planned opening date of October 2010. This slipped, first to October 2011, and then to 3 June this year.

But problems with its fire protection system ruled out a launch this year and 17 March 2013 became the new target date. However, this was further postponed in September until 27 October 2013.

Air Berlin is the first party to commence legal action, says the airport operator. However, it declines to comment on whether it expects further lawsuits from other airlines or businesses, such as shops or restaurants, due to move to the new airport.

Ironically, the airport operator published its latest traffic figures today, revealing that Tegel handled 15.4 million passengers between January and October this year, up 7.7% against the same period in 2011.