Berlin airport’s opening delayed indefinitely

by Array

BERLIN, Germany—Rabbits scamper over quiet runways. Only the call of a crow disturbs the silence around a gleaming, empty terminal that should be humming with the din of thousands of passengers.

Willy Brandt International Airport, named for Germany’s famed Cold War leader, was supposed to have been up and running in late 2011, a sign of Berlin’s transformation from Cold War confrontation line to world class capital of Europe’s economic powerhouse. Instead it has become a symbol of how, even for this technological titan, things can go horribly wrong.

After four publicly announced delays, officials acknowledged the airport won’t be ready by the latest target: October 2013. To spare themselves further embarrassment, officials have refused to set a new opening date.

The saga of Berlin’s new airport has turned into a national joke and a source of humiliation for a people renowned for being on time. Yet it is just the highest profile in a string of big-ticket projects—including a concert hall in Hamburg, railway tunnels in Munich and Leipzig, a subway line in Cologne and a Stuttgart underground train station—that have been plagued by huge cost overruns and delays.

The airport fiasco presents a staggering picture of incompetence.

German media have tracked down a list of tens of thousands of technical problems; among them: officials can’t even figure out how to turn the lights off. Thousands of light bulbs illuminate the gigantic main terminal and unused parking lots around the clock, a massive energy and cost drain that appears to be the result of a computer system that’s so sophisticated it’s almost impossible to operate.

Every day, an empty commuter train rolls to the unfinished airport over an eight kilometre stretch to keep the newly-laid tracks from getting rusty, another example of gross inefficiency. Meanwhile, hundreds of freshly planted trees had to be chopped down because a company delivered the wrong type of linden trees; several escalators need to be rebuilt because they were too short; and dozen of tiles were already broken before a single airport passenger ever stepped on them.

The airport itself points to problems with the fire safety system as the immediate cause of the delays: The fire safety system incorporates some 75,000 sprinklers, but computer programming glitches mean it’s not clear whether all of these sprinklers would spray enough water during a fire. And the system’s underground vent system, designed to suck away smoke, isn’t working. Here, again, technology’s getting in the way: It’s so advanced that technicians can’t figure out what’s wrong with it.

Critics say that the difficulties with handling today’s complex technology have been compounded by hasty, negligent work due to the intense time pressures.

Underlying these problems appears to be a culture of political dishonesty.

“Many politicians want prestigious large-scale projects to be inseparably connected with their names,” said Sebastian Panknin, a financial expert with the Taxpayer’s Association Germany. “To get these expensive projects started, they artificially calculate down the real costs to get permission from parliament or other committees in charge.”

In addition to that, politicians at the city, state and federal levels then often come with extra demands once construction is underway, which leads to expensive modifications. In the case of the Berlin airport, said Pankin, there were about 300 ad hoc change requests by politicians which created an explosion of costs and several delays—among them a last-minute wish to expand the terminal to include a shopping mall.

Hamburg’s concert hall was to have opened by 2010. Instead it’s nowhere near complete and costs have more than doubled to 575 million euros. It’s now due to open in 2016.

Construction on Cologne’s North-South subway line began in 2004. After cost overruns and a collapse that killed two people in 2009, officials say the entire line may not be open until 2019. Costs have soared from 780 million to 1.08 billion euros.

In Leipzig, the city tunnel for commuter trains was expected to open in 2009. Construction is still not finished, and costs have jumped from 572 million to 960 million euros.

Of all the bungled projects, the Berlin airport is the biggest embarrassment.

The initial plan foresaw building a stately airport that would be financed by private investors and replace the city’s two Cold War airports: Tegel in former West Berlin and Schoenefeld in what was Communist East Berlin.

After a series of disputes with private investors, the city, state and federal governments eventually took over the airport project. In 2006, costs were estimated at two billion euros, but after four delays, the figure spiked to 4.4 billion euros.

Companies like Air Berlin, Germany’s second biggest carrier, have been severely affected by the delays and are suing for lost revenues. Small businesses like coffee shops, restaurants, retail stores or bus operators—who had already hired staff and invested in new stores at the airport—are facing bankruptcy.

Twitter users asked the mayor to “please open this gate,” playing off Ronald Reagan’s famous 1987 appeal to Moscow to “tear down” the Berlin Wall.

And by the time the airport finally opens, it may face a new headache.

Some aviation experts are warning that by its inauguration date, the airport will already be too small to handle the rising number of passengers. The nearly 360,000sqm airport complex was designed to handle 27 million passengers. But the existing two city airports handled 25 million passengers last year—and the city keeps attracting more visitors every year.

“The airport is too expensive, too small and too much behind time,” said aviation expert Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, who recently caused a stir when he proposed that the airport ought to be torn down.

In an effort to salvage the mess, Hartmut Mehdorn, the hardnosed former boss of the German railway system with a reputation for turning around failing corporations, was named chief executive of the airport in early March.

“The whole world says: it’s not possible at all,” Mehdorn said when he took over. “I say: It should be possible.

“I just don’t know how yet.”