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Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Economist explains

Why Berlin’s new airport keeps missing its opening date

Berlin Brandenburg airport was set to open in 2011. The deadline has just been 
pushed back again

United Kingdom - The Economist

GERMANS are not renowned for their sense of humour, but that has not prevented 
one of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects from becoming a joke. 
Originally set to open in October 2011 at a total cost of €2bn ($2.15bn), 
Berlin Brandenburg Airport is still lying unused in the countryside south-east 
of the capital. Projected construction costs have risen to more than €6bn. 
The company that runs the airport, which is owned by the city of Berlin, 
Brandenburg state and the federal government, spends €17m each month in 
maintenance for the empty terminal building, while foregoing some €13m in 
rental income. Nobody was surprised when the airport’s boss announced last 
weekend that it would miss yet another deadline—its sixth so far. The airport 
is now scheduled to begin operating in 2018. Why has Germany been unable to get 
Berlin Brandenburg Airport off the ground? 

The official reason for the current hold-up is prosaic. More than a thousand 
automatic doors in the terminal building need to be rejigged to ensure that 
they close properly in the event of a fire. Opening the airport before this is 
done is deemed too dangerous by the airport's executives. But the door debacle 
is only the latest in a never-ending list of construction faults: car parks 
that began to crumble weeks after they had been completed, missing check-in 
counters and luggage conveyor belts, faulty fire-safety walls between the 
airport and the railway station that serves it, pipes and cables so ill-fitted 
as to be useless. Whenever a new problem became known, the opening date had to 
be moved back.

The constant difficulties are the result of a combination of incompetence and 
corruption. When the airport missed its first opening deadline, largely because 
the company in charge of building the terminal’s interior had gone bust, and 
then the second as new problems were discovered, the airport's bosses reacted 
by cancelling the contract with the consortium of architects and engineering 
firms in charge of planning the airport. They passed some of the consortium's 
tasks to in-house employees and kept on some sub-contractors, but lost access 
to years’ worth of construction expertise and documents kept by the planners. 
“They effectively had to start from scratch”, Berlin’s mayor Michael 
Müller, who is also the head of the airport’s advisory board, said recently. 
Oversight of construction work was so poor that major problems were noticed far 
too late or not at all. 

The delays have already cost taxpayers in Berlin and Brandenburg hundreds of 
millions. Even more pressing are allegations of corruption surrounding the 
project. Last autumn one former senior employee of the airport received a jail 
sentence for taking bribes from a contractor; two others got suspended 
sentences. Scores of others have been fined and more cases are pending. The 
delays seem set to go on. A satirical online magazine identified “an 
archaeological ruin of unexpected size” south of Berlin. Local newspapers 
print daily count-ups to account for “days since non-opening” and report 
with glee on the latest glitches. If there is one positive outcome from the 
entire mess, it is that the airport has given Germans a few laughs.

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