Can Berlin be a real startup hub without a real airport?

Late last night I landed in Berlin. It’s been a few months since my last visit, and this time I’ve come along to speak at The Zeitgeist Project, a fringe event taking place on the eve of IFA — one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics shows. I’m taking the stage to discuss the ideas and trends in technology that I think we should be taking notice of. I’ll tell you more about that soon.

But first I wanted to ask Berlin a favor: Whatever it takes, fix your airport — and fast.

Berlin is a great city, full of energy and verve and populated by vibrant, colorful characters. It’s constantly changing, always subversive and feels quite unlike anywhere else. And, as we’ve been explaining for the last few months, the tech scene here is bursting with enthusiasm. David Meyer, our senior writer based in the German capital, has been reporting a ton of activity here from all sorts of companies — many of them with bright futures. Sure, there’s a lot of hype, but there is something genuinely interesting going on too, most of it pretty organically.

And it’s taken a while, but the local politicians — usually more with the intricacies of European and global politics than the impoverished city on their doorstep — have also started to realize that they could do more to support the industry.

After months — if not years — of complaining about a lack of official support from the Berlin administration, the city’s senate has decided to start pushing it as a tech hub. The value of that support is yet to be determined, but there are some definites. In concrete terms, it’s a €500,000 ($623,000) marketing campaign over the next year: not a huge amount of money, but significant when you consider Berlin’s been broke for the best part of a decade.
Beyond the numbers, though, the biggest impact is the psychological boost.

Such movements are usually cast in comparison to London, Europe’s leading startup capital, which has its own cast of characters and growing governmental support. The latest campaign has generated follow-up reports elsewhere — including this number in The Wall Street Journal, and .

But there’s something Berlin is missing much more than a startup scene. It’s missing connections.

For a city that is really the gateway between Eastern and Western Europe, it’s pretty poorly served by a handful of small, decrepit airports. Compare its situation to London or New York, where you can fly pretty much anywhere, and you realize that Berlin is doing a bad job of making it easy for entrepreneurs, investors, staff and new recruits to get in and out. Sure, San Francisco is less well-connected, but it’s still pretty good for international travel — and hey, it’s San Francisco, so it’s got most of the access it needs right on its doorstep anyway.

Berlin, on the other hand… well. If it wants to be an international player, it’s got to play the international game.

What makes it worse is that this situation was supposed to have been fixed last year with the opening of Berlin Brandenburg airport, a new mega-conglomeration to replace the trio of Schonefeld, Tempelhof and Tegel and have capacity for some 50 million passengers each year.

Trouble is, it’s still closed.

First the initial opening date of October 2011 was pushed back to June 2012. And then, in June, it was pushed back again to March 2013 amid concerns that the fire safety systems weren’t adequate.

Last night, I asked my taxi driver what the latest update was.

He started laughing.

The autobahn was closed and instead of ripping through the city’s express route we were directed into Kreuzberg, the immigrant district, where we crept along to my hotel. I was secretly glad — I’m not sure I would have wanted to drive on a road with no speed limits and a driver who was laughing uncontrollably.

When he gathered himself, he explained that things were not looking good. A decision on whether the 2013 opening date was viable had just been delayed, and it now looked ominously likely that Brandenburg would not make its debut until 2014.

“The whole world, it smiles at us and our airport,” he told me.

And he’s right. You can titter at the humor of the stereotypically efficient Germans being so unable to complete the task — but in the end it’s really not that funny for the city, or the businesses here.

We’ve been here before. Back in December last year, Om came in for some criticism from locals when he called out one of the city’s airports, Tegel, as “dowdy” and “small”. You can read the comments: “That’s unfair,” came the response. “We’re getting Brandenburg.”

Except, it turns out, that’s not exactly true. Om’s correct, the city needs to be better linked to the world — and the longer it fails to meet that requirement, the harder things get. Berlin’s claim to be a technology hub of international standing relies on a whole ecosystem of things going right: you need entrepreneurs, you need technologists, you need investment, you need support — and you need to be accessible.

Right now, there is a long way to go. But Brandenburg is an embarrassment that every entrepreneur and startup in Berlin should be shouting about.