Terminally Early: The Berlin Viewing Platform

31 May 24 2 Comments

Mistakes were made. All of them were mine.

Before I left for Dresden, I planned out my full itinerary. Berlin is a much busier airport than Tallinn, so I needed to remember that when it was time to leave, I’d need to arrive two hours before. When I added the revised time to my online calendar, I forgot that I was on Eastern European Time but my flight was on Central European Time. Once I was in Germany, the calendar would display my departure time an hour earlier than I’d intended.

I never looked at the booking information again. Instead, when it came time to leave Dresden, I looked at the time in my calendar, presumed it was the actual departure time for my flight, and planned to arrive two hours beforehand. A long-distance bus could get me there just in time, but it was tight. This worried me. The only other option was a bus departing two hours earlier. What a pain, I thought, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about delays or traffic. I booked the earlier bus.

Everything went as smooth as clockwork until I arrived at the airport. My flight was not listed on the board. My heart stopped. Trembling, I pulled up the booking. Yes, I was at the right airport on the right day. I was just seven hours early.

If Cliff had been there, he would have spent an hour asking me how it was possible that I’d made such a mistake, and then, with a flourish, pulled out his high-end credit card to get us into the business class lounge where we could drink gin and tonic and read newspapers until it was time to board the flight.

But I had no premiere credit cards of my own and once I got bored of berating myself, there wasn’t much to do.

Normally, I would make a point of getting through security and safely airside as quickly as possible, but with so much time to spare, I thought maybe I should save the excitement of the duty-free shops for the last four hours before the flight. Here was my lucky opportunity to savour the opportunity of exploring the departures terminal. The check-in area smelled of anticipation and floor cleaner as bored ground staff waved the next passengers forward. I peeked into the silent prayer room and got out my book but then felt guilty for not praying. I took the escalator to the food court and, drawn by the scent of frying onions, I splurged on an overpriced currywurst that tasted of regret. Then I took the escalator down again. As I circled the check-in area for the seventh time, I glanced up and saw another level. Up there was a Starbucks and a sign that said Besucher Terrasse, Visitor’s Terrace.

Excitement! I bounded up the stairs, past the toll offices and the Starbucks until I reached the barred gate to the terrace. A sign notified me that it would be three euros to visit the terrace for ninety minutes and they accept VISA, Mastercard and American Express. Not a word about what was on the terrace. I looked around dubiously. Beyond the barrier was a dingy grey corridor.

I poked at the machine. It blinked with an entrance time of 11:15. It was currently 11:28. They were trying to steal fifteen minutes of my ninety! I pressed an arrow to update the time to 11:30 and paid up. The machine spat out a QR code which I scanned at the barrier. A red light flashed with small print asking me to please check my entrance time. It was 11:29. I practiced deep breathing for sixty seconds, then held up the QR code again. This time, the light flashed green.

I was already pushing my way in when I realized the turnstile did not have enough room for my luggage. Fearful of losing my three euro investment, I picked up the bag and lift it over my head and into the gated area. Through the dingy grey corridor was an elevator. My options were up or down, with no further detail. I chose up.

The elevator disgorged me onto a bridge going over passport control. People wheeled their bags through the airport, oblivious to me watching from above. A perfect spot for a sniper, I thought, then instinctively flinched, as if the thought alone might bring security down on me. In the other direction, the torso and head of a young man emerged through a vent, hopefully some sort of duct repairman rather than another lost passenger.

At the far end of the bridge was another elevator. Again, I chose up. A sign in German proclaimed “Come and look over our shoulder” which I can assure you sounds as awkward in German as in English. I didn’t want to look over anyone’s shoulder.

I was torn between regretting this entire endeavor and considering it likely the most exciting thing that would happen to me all day. It was still another five hours until my flight. Besides, I’d already invested three euros. I exited the elevator into a foyer with big glass doors which opened automatically as I approached. I had arrived.

The gentle warmth of the sun contrasted with the smell of jet fumes as I stepped onto an open-air concrete platform the size of a tennis court with tall acrylic walls on all sides. A young couple was gathered in the corner, their small child with his nose pressed against the plexiglass. Across the apron, a white light flashed on the roof of the control tower with emergency stairs snaking down the side. The tower was only a few levels higher than I was. As I approached the clear wall, I could see the tarmac dotted with scattered planes. Tiny vehicles full of luggage scuttled across. There was no sign of a runway.

I pulled my luggage behind me as I moved along the wall but I wasn’t sure in which direction I should be looking.

I thought for a moment and then messaged my daughter, safely in middle England. Could she possibly find out for me which runway was in use today (now) at Berlin Brandenburg?

At that moment, the sound of roaring jets drew my attention to the side. A jet gathered speed and lifted off. I was just about to message again to say never mind when I received a response.

Ryanair just took off from Runway North going 07L

Well, that was a bit more detailed than I had expected. But she wasn’t finished yet.

Runway South being used for landings, it looks like from 25L. No, actually, both runways are in use. BH Air flight taxiing to Runway South.

She was clearly looking at the aircraft arrivals and departures. I put my glasses back on, as clearly I couldn’t just look at the planes but needed to identify their livery. A Finnair aircraft taxied towards me from the other side, heading for the apron. My message got an immediate confirmation.

Yep, Finnair just landed.

I felt an odd rush of power, as if I were a supervising controller overseeing Berlin Airport. I dragged my luggage to the right side of the terrace, but I couldn’t find the BH Air flight that she had said was taxiing for departure.

It’s now taking off Runway South. You might see it in a sec.

Shit. I was on the wrong side. I ran the length of the terrace, dragging my wheelie bag behind me. Panting, I saw an all white aircraft disappearing into the sky. Was that BH Air?

All white fits the picture on flight radar. Ryanair to London Stansted taking off from North Runway.

I dashed back to the other side. but the Ryanair flight was already in the air. I grabbed a quick snap for my daughter with the caption “I’m too slow.”

Eurowings coming on South Runway for landing!

Panting, I ran back again. A man in a suit followed my frantic back-and-forth with a furrowed brow.

Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt just pushed back. Looks like it is probably headed to South Runway? But not sure.


Next landing would be Ryanair from Catania but it’s not clear which runway. Different Eurowings lurking near North Runway, due to take off to Heraklion.

And then a quiet note of concern.

I’m glad you’re having fun at the airport, but please don’t get flagged down by security for chasing the planes.

Too out of breath to type, I sent her shots of the Eurowings and Lufthansa aircraft.

Iberia is off to your left but behind the corner so you won’t see it yet.

I scanned the area for Iberia. A moment later, the aircraft appeared from behind the building. But how had she known? She laughed at me.

You just sent me several pictures of precisely tracked GPS markers.

She had used my three airplane photographs against her real-time map of the airport and was easily able to triangulate my position. Having worked out where the platform must be, she was now able to imagine what I would see in respect to the moving dots on her screen.

“Lufthansa is departing now,” I told her as the aircraft taxied onto the runway at the middle entrance.

Yes, and not even using the full runway!

It seemed unreal to me that, over a thousand kilometers apart and with two completely different views, we were sharing this experience.

Iberia taxiing for Runway South, going to take off the long way.

Eurowings taxiing to Runway North for take off too.

I froze in the middle.

Ryanair coming in for landing Runway North. :D

Feel like you have too many places to be and not enough eyes, yet?

My daughter was clearly getting her revenge for her childhood of forced marches through the countryside. But there in the middle of the terrace, I’d become distracted by an unmoving aircraft.


But a moment later she had it.

Netherlands Royal Air Force. But flies for NATO. :D It’s flying to Rzeszow.

This was definitely better than sitting in departures. I told her that I had a white plane taxiing through the apron towards the south.

Oh that one – SmartLynx to Stockholm. They’re late, should have taken off 15 minutes ago.

And then a top tip.

Easyjet from Milan just landed South. Clearly, the place to be, the South Runway.

I walked back over, feeling the effects of the summer sun. A British Airways flight crossed in front of the platform. I could just about make out the faces looking out of the oval windows as it stopped, letting a United flight trundle past.

Two flights left and another one landed while it was waiting. Finally, it inched forward to the runway. I resisted the urge to wave at the passengers. BA must have pissed someone off, I told her as the flight climbed away

She sent me a screenshot.

Found it. Headed to London – took off 14 minutes late. It’s now over Hanover.

It took off late. Late. What time was it?

My ninety minutes had vanished in the blink of an eye. I didn’t dare overstay: the barrier would probably lock against me, trapping me in the observation area for the rest of the afternoon while humorless security agents decided what to do with me. It was safer to leave now.

What a wonderful experience, though, sharing a rare moment with my distant daughter, bridged through technology. Full of fresh air and vigor, I was ready to face the queues for security. It was only three and a half hours until my flight, after all.

Category: Fun Stuff,


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