Airport operator Berliner Flughaefen told affected airlines that it will not keep the June 3 opening date for Berlin Brandenburg International. Now airlines are struggling with the consequences.

With less than three weeks to go before the planned transfer, airlines have to move back much of what they already transported to BER (the airport's new three-letter code) to Tegel and Schoenefeld, the city's two existing airports that were about to be closed. The airlines also have to decide how to operate their much-expanded schedules out of a cramped Tegel for several months. With operators claiming damages, the airport company is facing a multimillion-euro bill to compensate them for the losses. March 17, 2013, is now foreseen as the new opening date.

Berliner Flughaefen CEO Rainer Schwarz, who is facing calls to resign, says the delay is linked to the fact that the terminal's fire-protection system appears not to be ready and cannot be guaranteed to function properly in time. Further testing is needed to ensure that everything works properly, he says, while not specifying how extensive the delay would be.

Lufthansa argues that the move to BER should not happen before mid-April 2013. Air Berlin CEO Hartmut Mehdorn says the new date is “completely unacceptable.” He says a delay of a few months would have been manageable, but pushing the opening back by almost one year is a huge blow for the airline, which has the largest market share in Berlin.

Airlines doubt that fire protection has been the only issue. “We have had to realize over the past few days and weeks, and after several tests, that there is a need to act on several fronts,” Lufthansa states. Company sources say the carrier also is unhappy with the state of check-in facilities.

Airline officials say there are too few check-in desks. Tests with volunteers showed that the likely passenger throughput was half of what it should have been in process planning. But it is difficult to add more desks in the terminal, regardless of the delay. The airport already decided to set up temporary tent-like structures with additional check-in facilities and assured Lufthansa, Air Berlin and EasyJet—the airport's three main carriers—that they would be accommodated in the main building.

But other carriers could be forced to channel their passengers through the temporary halls. It is unclear how that problem will be resolved.

Airline lounges, as well as many other nonessential facilities such as restaurants, also would not have been ready.

Air Berlin's Mehdorn says the “worst part was that we only got to know about this three weeks before the planned opening. We knew it was going to be tight, but in the end we were caught completely by surprise.

“We will not be able to cover these costs,” he says, referring to additional expenses related to the delay. “We expect the airport to cover the damages.”

Air Berlin plans to operate its schedule without major changes. The airline was about to introduce a system of six arrival and departure banks that was aimed at turning the new airport into its key hub. That system would be almost impossible to implement at the old Tegel airport because the terminal is not big enough, the baggage-handling system is outdated and there is not enough runway capacity.

Smooth operations would be a challenge even without additional flights. Air Berlin has already transferred most of its spare parts to the new airport; they will now have to be shuttled back to Tegel to avoid disruptions. The airport's main fuel tank was about to be demolished and reserves are down to a minimum. Fuel has to be transported back across the city by truck to ensure sufficient supply. Mehdorn is demanding that more baggage handlers be employed to deal with the expected increase in workload, and is worried that there will be a shortage of gates and remote stands for Air Berlin's aircraft.

Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa's passenger airline division, says many airlines may have to move temporarily to Schoenefeld to make room for Air Berlin and Lufthansa. Lufthansa said it plans to stick to its planned schedule and is in the process of securing additional slots at Tegel. However, even if it manages to gain more slots on the already busy runways, it will be a huge challenge to process the additional passengers through Tegel's crowded terminal.

Lufthansa intends to boost capacity by 40% at Berlin Brandenburg, opening up to 50 more destinations (although many of them will not be served daily). Germany's largest airline plans to base an additional six Airbus A320s in the nation's capital and introduced a low-fare scheme to stimulate demand.

As for Berlin's airport infrastructure, it has long lagged behind modern standards. Frankfurt is Lufthansa's major hub and the airline chose Munich as its second major base when the new airport in the south opened in 1992. Berlin has suffered from its isolation during the Cold War. Because of the city's status, Lufthansa was not allowed to fly there until the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Air Berlin only then started out as a charter airline that moved slowly into the scheduled arena over 20 years. It is now a member of the Oneworld alliance.

However, the city of Berlin's economic weakness persists mainly because of a lack of industry in the region. Thus, fully functioning air access is crucial for the city's development.

Berlin Brandenburg International is located to the immediate south of the current Schoenefeld airport perimeter and will use the old runway plus another one that has been newly constructed. The historic Tempelhof, site of the Berlin Airlift after World War II, was closed in 2008.

Traffic to Berlin has grown by more than 10% annually for many years, mainly because the city was rediscovered as a major tourist destination and because low-fare airlines have become firmly established, making a new airport an even more urgent necessity. But with two airports closing, Berlin Brandenburg will already be crowded when it finally opens. Runway capacity is also a major issue: The airport has two runways that can be operated independently. However, one will be lost at Schoenefeld and two at Tegel when those facilities are shuttered. Terminal expansion is possible and will now come sooner rather than later.

But given local resistance against the airport, mainly because of noise, it is unlikely that another runway will be added in the next 10-15 years.

The state of Brandenburg is the airport's largest shareholder along with the city of Berlin. Both hold a 37% stake; the federal government owns 26%.