BER is Germany’s second most popular airport (AFP)

Berlin, Germany:

Benny waddles up to eight-year-old Maya, does a happy pirouette on her short hind legs and then snuggles up to her for a cuddle.

Maya is a bit annoyed by the long wait for her flight to Turkey with her family, but she immediately falls in love with the four-year-old dachshund and her father Michael Uth is a little less rushed.

Berlin’s massively delayed, absurdly overpriced and far too small BER international airport, which opened in 2020 to great ridicule, has had to get creative to win over tired passengers.

A pilot program sends three particularly good-natured pooches along with two human trainers to serve as on-site stress-reduction ambassadors.

At the start of the autumn school holidays, Benny, the black Labrador Emi and the terrier mix Pepper were on their mischievous mission at Germany’s third largest airport.

Patrolling the terminal’s gleaming floors on long lines, it’s easy to spot travelers who could use a little comfort or entertainment.

Uth arrived at BER three hours earlier with Maya and their five-year-old son Vincent and flew three hours to Antalya.

“It gives them something to enjoy,” said Uth, 38, as his children played tag with the puppies.

“It takes their mind off the waiting and the stress of all the crowds here. Happy children are a great start to a journey.”

Social media storm

BER Airport has been described as “cursed” by local media after its opening was delayed for nine years due to ongoing technical difficulties and allegations of corruption.

The cost was six billion euros ($6.4 billion), three times higher than planned, and BER finally opened as air travel collapsed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

To avert bankruptcy, the facility required a major bailout, with taxpayers asked to pay in almost €2 billion by 2026.

Passengers often report huge check-in queues and long delays in baggage claim due to staff shortages.

According to a survey by the claims management company AirHelp, BER is the second most popular airport in Germany after the former Frankfurt-Hahn military airfield.

Although conditions have generally improved, the recommendation that passengers allow at least 2.5 hours to travel to their flight caused a storm on social media.

There were bitter comparisons with the disused capital Tegel Airport, which was known for its direct access to check-in gates from a taxi stop.

Airport spokesman Jan-Peter Haack admitted that BER’s start was difficult, but announced that operations were now “very stable” and had handled almost 20 million passengers last year.

He said innovations such as the ability to book a time slot at security gates at no additional cost and self-service check-in and baggage drop kiosks have reduced crowds at various bottlenecks.

But on busy days, tempers can run high.

The stress relief dogs, an idea from Los Angeles International Airport, had received a “very good response” from BER passengers, said Haack.

“The dogs only approach people who are truly receptive – no one is forced to,” he said.

Elisabeth Tornow, 69, who often travels to the Swiss city of Basel to visit her family, said boarding particularly frayed her nerves.

“I’m not the youngest anymore and you have to climb the stairs and be pushed around to find your place,” said the retired office manager.

Tornow couldn’t handle the nighttime walks and had to let her own pet go when her husband died. While playing with Pepper, she said that all airports could be improved with a few furballs.

“It just calms you down when a dog is around,” she said. “I wish I had something tasty with me.”

“Tantrum over”

Trainer Jörg Utech, 63, works on a voluntary basis with the Brandenburg Therapy Dog Association and completed his third assignment at BER.

The former IT specialist said he first saw the dogs in action five years ago when his wife died of cancer in a nursing home.

Since then, he has watched the animals charm and captivate older people, help fidgety children concentrate in school and calm anxious airline travelers.

He said the patrols require a special kind of animal.

“You have to have a calm temperament but also like to play,” he said.

“But you have to be careful not to leave them outside for more than an hour because that’s a lot of work for a dog. And if someone has a bad day and shows us that they are unhappy, we stop immediately.” “

According to Utech, screaming children remained the biggest challenge.

“The first time we were here, a family came with a child who really didn’t want to sit in the stroller,” he said.

“My colleague was there straight away with Pepper dancing for a treat. The tantrum was over and the vacation could begin.”

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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