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Berlin’s new airport – still unopened – defies German reputation for efficiency

Three years have passed since the June 12, 2012, official opening date for Berlin’s grand new airport. Unfortunately, despite six years of construction and a full year of intense publicity and planning leading up to that date, the airport hasn’t actually opened.

And, perhaps more unfortunately, as this dubious third anniversary approaches, it appears the opening may be three years in the future. At 10 times the initial cost estimate.

The airport was dreamed of as one of the finishing touches on transforming this city from a divided symbol of the Cold War into a unified, modern and international cultural and business hub. Instead, it’s become fodder for humor columnists and comedy shows.

“From the outside at least, it sounds like an issue with a lack of attention to detail, some poor planning and questionable workmanship,” said Joerg Wolf, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Initiative in Berlin. “It doesn’t sound very German, does it?”

There are other examples. Joining the airport – construction of which began in 2006 but had been in the planning process for a decade before that – as highly visible public flops are the futuristic Hamburg Elbphilharmonie concert hall – seven years behind schedule and costing10 times its original budget – and the Berlin State Opera house, four years late and almost twice its original budget.

It’s a problem that goes to the heart of the German stereotype: punctual, precise and exacting. That stereotype is one in which Germans revel. As a favorite German saying notes: “Dem Ingenieur ist nichts zu schwer,” which means “Nothing is too difficult for the engineer.”

Except these days, quite a bit seems to be beyond German workmanship. It’s a topic that’s particularly sensitive as Germany takes on the role of Europe’s taskmaster, demanding that nations such as Greece and Italy take a more German approach to life. The notion that the German way now means shoddy planning and budget overruns is a source of pain, and not a little self-deprecating humor here.

And the prime example is Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, whose bag tag letters will be BER, if it ever opens.

There’s even a website that lists things that took less time to build: the Roman Colosseum (eight years), the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (five years), the Eiffel Tower (two years), and on and on.

A late-night comedy program used a “Star Trek” movie clip with dubbed dialogue showing the crew noting that their only chance for a safe landing on Earth is Berlin Brandenburg, but as they approach one shouts, “Oh my God, it’s still not finished!” The year: 3745.

The reasons the airport isn’t ready are numerous. In fact, a month before the planned opening date in 2012, the city announced a delay due to “technical problems and mistakes.” Not long afterward, airport officials noted they were dealing with 20,000 problems, ranging from broken floor tiles to nonfunctioning sprinklers to mislabeled massive twists of communications cables.

A year later, August of 2013, the number of problems was up to 75,000. And when Hartmut Mehdorn, a previous acting chairman of the new airport, took control of the airport holding company last year, he admitted they actually had 150,000 issues to address before opening.

The most talked about are the fire-safety issues. German law requires a ventilation system that can remove smoke from the terminals within 15 minutes. The traditional method for doing this is drawing the smoke out of chimneys above the building. But the planners didn’t like the look of chimneys on the pure lines of their shiny new airport, so they opted for tunnels, hoping they would suck out the smoke just as quickly.

It turned out, however, that smoke goes up more easily than it goes down, and the tunnels failed the tests.

And fixing those issues hasn’t been cheap. In the 1990s, the airport holding company estimated the cost of building the airport would be about $600 million. In 2006, the company approached noted German airport consultant Dieter Faulenbach da Costa for a plan. He came back and said it would cost 1.1 billion euro – about $1.4 billion at that time. The airport authority, however, decided the estimate was too high, that it could complete the task more cheaply without consultants running the show.

By 2009, the administrators finished a financial plan, estimating costs at 2.4 billion euro – then $3.3 billion. Today, an online clock on airport overruns has costs already doubling that estimate, and rising by $1.2 million a day – meaning that if the airport is finished in three more years, total costs could be as high as $6 billion.

And that’s only public money for the airport itself.

News reports around Berlin are filled with tales of woe from businesses that had contracts to locate in or near the new place. One restauranteur was shown in his empty airport restaurant, lamenting that not only had all the food he’d ordered for the June 2012 opening gone bad, but also the warranties on the new ovens he bought will expire this year, the equipment still unused.

The Steigenberger Hotel had what was largely seen as the prime location on the new airport grounds. It was ready to open in 2012. Since then, the management has had a crew spend its days in the customer-free hotel, opening and shutting windows, running on the treadmills in the gym, and flushing the toilets and running the water taps in the guest rooms to make sure everything remains in working order.

The so-called ghost hotel was recently featured in an episode of the German crime drama “Tatort,” making it one of the few parts of the airport most Germans have seen in any detail.

Yet experts note that beyond the costs and the time, the new airport might have deeper issues.

On June 3, 2011, airport spokesman Ralf Kunkel issued a release that noted, “The airport countdown is on. ... In the next 365 days we will complete the construction works. The move is being planned minute by minute.”

His release dealt with the purpose of the new place: one unified city, one unified airport. Berlin had three airports at the time. The most well-known was Tempelhof, which had been built by Adolf Hitler and was later used by the United States during the Berlin Airlift to break the Soviet blockade of what then was West Berlin. Tempelhof closed in 2008 as construction on the new place was underway.

Remaining were Tegel Airport, which had become the primary airport for Berlin but was too much inside the city for further expansion, and Schoenefeld Airport, which had been the main airport of communist Berlin, is now used mostly by low-cost carriers and is next door to the new airport.

Both those airports were to cease to serve the public after midnight June 2, 2012, when an all-night move would relocate everything from luggage carts to refueling trucks to the new airport.

Instead, those airports remain in use, and, ominously, have had to expand.

The real problem facing Berlin Brandenburg, said Faulenbach da Costa, is that it was never planned for the amount of air traffic Berlin hopes to attract.

Its capacity matches almost exactly the traffic at the two existing airports, about 22 million passengers a year.

Part of the operating license – which carries the weight of law – for the new airport requires the two existing airports to close within six months of the new one opening.

Because of this, Faulenbach da Costa advocated in years past scrapping the new airport and starting work on a sustainable version. But, he noted, the time for such thinking is now past: Too much work has been done, too much money spent. Germany needs this airport to happen.

“But if one sees an airport as a nucleus of future economic development, that airport needs a perspective, needs room to grow,” he said. With Berlin Brandenburg, “there is no room to grow. It will have reached its capacity limits by the time it finally opens.”

He said that when the city took on the task of primary overseer of the project, it failed to realize the need to make the airport expandable, which he termed “a cardinal mistake.”

As the traffic at the time was projected to be about 22 million at opening, the airport should have been planned to expand to handle 44 million.

“In peak times, there will be enormous bottlenecks and delays in passenger handling,” he said. “Handling times for incoming and departing passengers will increase to three or four hours.”

Oddly, he noted, the terminal is large enough for much heavier traffic, but the design of the passenger and baggage check-in areas – which cannot be cheaply rearranged – greatly limits the number of travelers.

“Berlin Brandenburg will not become a hub. It will not become a player in the premier league of airports,” Faulenbach da Costa said, adding that despite initial hopes, Frankfurt and Munich will remain the primary airports in Germany. “BER,” he said, “is more likely to develop into a no-go airport.”

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