Held by long leashes, three affectionate dogs patrol Berlin International Airport. Their mission: to soothe nervous travelers, particularly when going on vacation.
Benny, a dachshund, waddles up to eight-year-old Maya, performs a playful pirouette on his short hind legs and snuggles up to cuddle her. The pouting pout immediately fades from the little girl’s face and her father, Michael Uth, suddenly seems more relaxed.
“This allows them not to think about waiting and the stress linked to crowds.“, testifies this 38-year-old man, who arrived three hours early as a precaution with his daughter and his 5-year-old son for a flight to Turkey also supposed to last three hours.
Since the start of the autumn holidays in Central Europe, Benny, but also Emi, a black labrador and Pepper, a terrier, have served as BER ambassadors to passengers in need of comfort.
This is a new pilot system set up by the BER international airport, the third in Central Europe, which opened in 2020 under fire from criticism.
“Very good reactions”
The BER has accumulated mishaps to the point of being described as a “cursed” airport by the German media.
Its opening was delayed for nine years due to repeated technical difficulties and suspicions of corruption.
Its cost of some 6 billion euros was three times higher than expected. To top it off: it finally opened just as air travel collapsed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Threatened with bankruptcy, it had to be bailed out by taxpayers via aid of nearly 2 billion euros until 2026.
Passengers regularly complain of malfunctions, such as huge queues at check-in and to collect their luggage due to lack of staff.
It is Central Europe’s least popular airport, after the former Frankfurt-Hahn military airfield, according to a survey by complaints management company AirHelp.
Although the BER had a difficult start, operations are now “very stable”, with nearly 20 million passengers welcomed last year, says airport spokesperson Jan-Peter Haack.
And various innovations, such as self-service check-in and bag drop machines, have helped reduce the crowds.
But on busy days, tempers can get heated. Hence the idea of the dog patrol, inspired by Los Angeles International Airport, which received “very good reactions” from BER passengers, Mr. Haack said.
“Dogs only approach people who are truly receptive – no one is forced“, he assured.
The crisis is over
For Elisabeth Tornow, 69, boarding is always an ordeal. “I am no longer the youngest and you have to go up the stairs and get jostled to find your seat,” says this retiree.
“The presence of a dog calms you“, she said while playing with Pepper.
That day, Jörg Utech, a volunteer at the Brandenburg Therapy Dog Association, made his third trip to the airport.
The 63-year-old retired computer scientist says he first saw the dogs in action five years ago, when his wife was dying of cancer in a care home.
Since then, he’s seen the animals charm the elderly, help restless children concentrate at school and calm anxious air travelers.
Patrols require a specific type of animal. “They must have a calm temperament, but also love to play,” he explains.
“However, you must be careful not to let them out for more than an hour, as it is a lot of work for a dog. And if one of them has a bad day and shows us that they are unhappy, we stop immediately“.
According to Mr Utech, screaming children remain the biggest challenge. During his first intervention, a child refused to sit in his stroller.
“My colleague arrived immediately with Pepper who danced for a treat, the crisis ended and the vacation could begin.”