Germans are renowned for their efficiency, hard work and craftsmanship. But that doesn’t seem to apply to airports – or at least a new airport in Berlin.
The Berlin Brandenburg Airport, or BER, was supposed to be the capital’s shining symbol of a united Germany. Instead it has become a national embarrassment beset by years of delays, soaring costs and construction so bungled that workers planted the wrong trees.
After five postponements, officials won’t dare offer another firm completion date, preferring instead to say they may have an announcement in August. The best guess now is that the BER will open in 2015, seven years late and at a cost of more than $6-billion, twice the initial estimate.
“It’s a disaster,” said Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, a Berlin-based aviation consultant. “It’s a big disaster.”
For now the sprawling complex stands forlorn in a giant field, the subject of morbid curiosity for Berliners. On Sunday, Bernd Schofers and his wife, Martina Kroger, came to take a look. They marvelled at the site, which looked like something out of a science fiction movie. The terminal buildings, roadway, parking lots, signage, office building and train station were in place. All that was missing were people and planes – enveloping the place in an eerie silence.
“It’s impressive on the one hand,” Mr. Schofers said after taking a few pictures. “But why can’t they open it?” He took a few more pictures, then smiled and said: “Come back in six years – maybe it will be open.”
The BER was never going to be just another public infrastructure project. The airport was supposed to be a hallmark of German reunification, and planning began shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It would replace the city’s three small airports – two in former West Berlin and one in East Berlin. The plan was to build the BER next to one of the old airports, Schönefeld, on the southern edge of the city.
All three levels of government – city, state and federal – joined forces to design a state-of-the-art transportation showpiece dubbed Airport City. To signify its importance, the BER would also carry the name of former chancellor Willy Brandt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, giving it the unwieldy name Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport. The airport will “fulfill Willy Brandt’s vision of overcoming political and economic conflict in Europe, and of a life of freedom,” officials proclaimed.
Despite the noble undertaking, the project ran into trouble from the start. The government hoped to open the airport in 2008, but protests and lawsuits by local residents opposed to the project delayed construction. When work finally began in 2006, just about everything went wrong.
Escalators didn’t fit, the lighting system wouldn’t work, baggage carousels malfunctioned, and the smoke ventilators wouldn’t ventilate. When the airport failed to open in 2011, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit set a new date. “We can say with great pride that the new airport will definitely open on time on June 3, 2012,” he said on Jan. 1, 2012, unveiling a countdown clock. “That’s the truth.”
It didn’t happen. Inspectors found so many flaws in the fire prevention system that they refused to approve it, forcing the mayor to cancel the opening ceremonies. Still more technical glitches surfaced, causing two more missed deadlines. And then things became farcical when local media reported that a gardening company had delivered the wrong species of trees and hundreds had to be dug up and returned.
In March, the government fired the project manager and brought in the former head of the German railway system, Hartmut Mehdorn. “I can’t wave any magic wand,” Mr. Mehdorn told reporters when he was appointed.
The buildings are nearly finished, but construction has ground to a halt while officials identify and fix the technical issues. The idle terminal is costing $26-million a month to maintain, which includes running several empty trains along the tracks every day to ensure the rails don’t rust.
Mr. da Costa said the biggest problem with the BER is the design. The airport has been built to handle 27 million passengers, just slightly above the current traffic levels at the two existing airports (Berlin Tempelhof closed in 2008). That means it will be hard-pressed to accommodate increases, he said. Officials say the terminal can be expanded to handle 45 million people, but Mr. da Costa isn’t convinced and believes the government will have to build another airport. “It’s a nice building, but the functionality is not good,” he said.