The nightmare begins before you ever step off the plane. That’s because stepping off a plane has never been such a soul-crushing experience. The plane door is open, but no one moves for 20 minutes; hundreds of passengers nervously shuffle in place, looking around to see if anyone can possibly make sense of the delay. Turns out the German border officials have set up shop at the end of the jet way, funneling passengers, one by one, to the two stands set up to inspect passports. That feeling of jaw-grinding anxiousness you feel once the seatbelt light is extinguished and the plane door is opened extends for the better part of an hour, as the overmatched agents stamp their way through over 300 passports.
From there, matters at Berlin’s Tegel International Airport spiral ever downward. In a matter of 90 minutes, every quaint stereotype that I held about the Germans crumbles like an overbaked Bavarian pretzel. A few of the dizzying lowlights:
* A 35-minute sojourn across three terminals, despite being booked through to Barcelona on the same airline. The best guess for this is that Tegel seems to be built explicitly for AirBerlin, since their planes are scattered across all four terminals with no overriding logic to their distribution.
* Two runs through security, one directly after passing through the makeshift immigration stand, another when I enter the new terminal. The latter involves a tremendous amount of confusion over a belt buckle and a bag of smoked paprika. (Despite the multiple layers of security checks, no one ever actually asks to look at my passport.)
* Terminal chaos. In my tiny slice of the airport, seven of the nine gates had flights leaving at exactly 8:55 a.m. The logic behind the group scheduling is unclear (tax breaks? 2-for-1 takeoffs before 9 am?), but the impact is obvious: the entire terminal is one massive bottleneck, delaying flights because of a lack of runway space and leaving already-disgruntled passengers brandishing their elbows.
By the end, the sense of purgatorial dread is so thick that you begin to wonder if you’re not trapped in an Orwell novel. This comes from someone well-versed in the absurdities of the modern day American airport, ones that suddenly seem considerably more tolerable after a three hours in Berlin.
The most laughable moment, though, was saved for last. We lined up at the gate to board our flight, a line that inched forward over the course of 30 minutes due to the fact that we were boarding a single bus reserved for shuttling passengers from gate to plane. Nothing abnormal there: We slowly, steadily climbed aboard, waited anxiously for the bus to fill up and close its doors and whisk us away to our gleaming metal bird, ready for flight. After 20 minutes, the doors closed, the bus rumbled forward and…stopped, not more than 20 meters from where it started, and spat us back out into the German dawn. Turns out that the plane parked directly in front of the gate, the one that “couldn’t possibly be ours otherwise we wouldn’t be boarding this fucking bus, right?”, was indeed ours.
There was one highlight: a turkey sandwich stacked high on a chewy, cheese-crusted roll slathered lavishly in dill-spiked yogurt. A delicious distraction, but no cold cut, no matter how heroic, could possibly overshadow the disaster that is Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Lucky for those looking to pass through the Deutschland capital in the coming year, Tegel is in the twilight of its life; it is scheduled to close June 2nd, 2012, when the shiny new Brandenburg airport will become Berlin’s new central airport.