Essence of berlin

BER Berlin Brandenburg: How Not to Build an Airport

Sam Bavin 15 mins
BER Berlin Brandenburg: How Not to Build an Airport

Efficiency: the great German stereotype. 

For many on the outside looking in, Germany is a land that runs like clockwork – a place where punctuality, precision and order are qualities prized beyond all else. 

Like all stereotypes, however, this is an oversimplification and a generalisation. German efficiency doesn’t apply everywhere. It certainly doesn’t apply in Berlin. 

Cash is still king here, despite the city’s status as the capital of one of the most economically and technologically developed nations on the planet. Crumbling buildings wait patiently for restoration, reappropriation or demolition, while construction projects that do commence routinely overrun. And then there’s BVG – the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, Berlin’s local transport authority – whose service is so comically bad that it’s been fully embraced, with a wink and a shrug of the shoulders, as the central theme of their advertising campaigns and social media presence.

Nothing, though, quite articulates how Berlin betrays the German efficiency stereotype like Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport (BER).

Originally scheduled for completion in 2011, nearly a decade later the airport still isn’t open. Operators revealed a new opening date at the end of last year: October 31st 2020. The media, commentators and even politicians scoffed at the announcement – and with good reason. The project has been plagued by a litany of financial, design, engineering, and corruption scandals – a comedy of monumental errors that have made it a laughing stock in Germany and further afield. The initial budget was around €3 billion. Current statistics suggest the cost has now skyrocketed to well over €7 billion.

So, what happened? 

When Germany reunified in 1990 and Berlin was reinstated as the German federal capital in 1991, authorities quickly recognized the need for a large commercial airport. Tempelhof, Tegel, and Schönefeld airports (relics from the Nazi and Cold War eras respectively) were aging and becoming congested with the increasing amount of passengers flying to the city. To ensure economic viability the plan was to build a single airport and close the existing ones.

On the 2nd May 1991, the Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH (FBB) was founded – part owned by the states of Berlin and Brandenburg (37% each) and the German state (26%) – to build the new airport. After 15 years of planning, construction began in 2006. The airport would be named after Willy Brandt, former mayor of West Berlin and chancellor of West Germany, and was tentatively set to open in late October 2011. In 2010, however, the construction planning company – the Planungsgemeinschaft Berlin-Brandenburg International – went bankrupt, causing major delays and pushing the opening date back to June 2012.

By 2012 it had become apparent that there were major issues with the airport’s fire protection and alarm system. Inspectors determined devices had been installed without a permit, and that the smoke exhaust system – which, during an emergency, would direct fumes beneath the floors – contravened safety laws. That same year operators also announced that the project had now gone a third over budget. The opening date was pushed back until October 2013.

By January of 2013, however, the opening had been pushed back another year to an unspecified date in 2014. The CEO of FBB was fired, and Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s mayor, resigned his chairmanship of the project (Wowereit would later resign as mayor of Berlin, citing the airport debacle as the primary reason). By 2014, increasing traffic to Berlin’s two active airports (Tegel and Schönefeld – Tempelhof was closed in 2008) meant that Berlin Brandenburg would immediately be operating at maximum capacity, and would require future redesigns before it had even opened. It was also revealed that Alfredo di Mauro, chief planner of the airport’s fire protection system, was not a qualified engineer but an engineering draftsman. 

Unbelievably, the disasters and delays didn’t stop there.

In 2015 disgraced technical director of the BER project, Jochen Großmann, was convicted of accepting bribes from Imtech – the company that had built the faulty fire protection system. Imtech then promptly filed for bankruptcy. A grim portent. Less than two years later in 2017, Berlin Brandenburg’s primary tenant, Air Berlin, went into insolvency and ceased all operations. Lufthansa, BER’s second largest tenant, agreed to take over some of the abandoned routes but made it clear they would retain their primary hubs at Frankfurt and Munich airports. Third largest tenant Easyjet would also not offer connections. Consequently, there would be no major airlines operating a connecting hub at BER – calling the whole project into question. Widespread calls to keep Tegel open, even after Berlin Brandenburg had become operational, became louder and louder. 

The predicted opening date was pushed back even further when a 2017 review of BER’s safety controls revealed yet more alarming flaws in the fire detection system, sprinklers and smoke and exhaust management (an issue that has plagued the project and remains the largest hurdle to the opening of the new airport). Further safety-tests carried out in 2018 by firm TÜV found that there were over 800 wiring violations still remaining on the site. 

Despite the ongoing issues and concerns, officials optimistically announced that the facility would open in October of 2019 – yet another deadline that was missed. 

Today the ill-fated project has reached near mythic status. Rumours of gross incompetence, poor planning, and abject engineering failure continue to abound. 

Supposedly escalators in the terminals were too short, thousands of doors and rooms have been misnumbered, and display screens switched on in readiness for the initial opening have reached the end of their shelf life before the airport has even opened. One story claims that thousands of light bulbs have been running for years, day and night, because officials can’t work out how to turn them off. Apparently thousands of trees were planted around the site and then had to be chopped down as they were the wrong type. Every day a train runs up and down a five mile stretch of railway to and from the unfinished airport to prevent the tracks from rusting. There are even reports that suggested Willy Brandt’s family requested his name be removed from the airport so that it would not be associated with the disaster of its construction.

As of now, the Berlin Brandenburg International Airport is scheduled to open on October 31st 2020, with Tegel likely closing just over a week later. Flights will continue to operate from Schönefeld for several years until additional capacity at BER has been created. 

The current chief of BER, Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, remains convinced that the first planes will land at the new airport on October 31st, with the first departures taking off the following day – nine years later than originally planned. 

German efficiency? Pah! 

Header image © Peter Kuley via Wikimedia Commons