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The Berlin Brandenburg Airport – How a Shining New Project Became the Blight of a Decade

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

By Aaron Werner

A major government transport project with spiralling costs, huge delays, media and public backlash and an uncertain future? No, not HS2. This is Germany’s Berlin Brandenburg airport, originally intended to open in 2011.

No fewer than six completion dates have been postponed and the bill is only growing: the initial projected cost of €2 billion euros has now tripled to €6 billion. However, the head of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, Lütke Daldrup recently announced that the airport will finally open on 31st October 2020.

But with runways built over 10 years ago that have still not seen a single plane, whatever happened to German efficiency? Taking a look back at the airport’s timeline can help us understand what has caused this construction nightmare and bottomless money pit.

The airport was proposed as a way to unify Berlin after the fall of the wall, as historically Berlin had three separate airports, Tegel and Tempelhof in the West and Schönefeld in the East. The idea was to have one big airport that could serve all of Berlin and act as an international flight centre for all of Europe. After the airport’s completion, the other ‘superfluous’, aged airports were to be shut down. In 1996 it was decided that the new airport would be built adjacent to Schönefeld airport, so that it could use one of its old runways.

Initial construction seemed to go smoothly; runways and terminal buildings looked as though they were ready in 2010. Then, due to the bankruptcy of one of the major contractors working on the airport, the opening was delayed to 2012. Around this time, more than ten thousand volunteers were called in to test the airport by acting like passengers: buying tickets, checking in, going to gates and simulating boarding a plane. The April 2012 opening seemed imminent; airlines had sold tickets to and from the airport, the Bundeskanzlerin herself was to be present at the inauguration and news agencies set up around the airport in preparation. In the final days of construction, alarming discoveries were made. The fire alarms didn't work properly and the wiring was configured incorrectly to the extent it posed a fire hazard. Hundreds of doors were labelled wrong and the roof was believed to be unstable with risk of collapse.

Fixing these issues turned out to be a major undertaking, entire electrical systems had to be redone. The project continued to be plagued with contractor bankruptcies, slowing down work even further. Then in 2014, it became clear that the airport would already be at maximum capacity at opening and urgently needed to be redesigned and expanded. To this day, the sprinkler systems are faulty due to low water pressure. To top it off, builders have had to recently replace €500,000 euros worth of airport monitors, as they’ve come to the end of their life cycle having been left running since 2011.

The absurdity of the situation has sparked rumours of corruption behind the scenes. Contractors and regulators have much to gain from work being extended, considering the astronomical funds going into continuous construction. The airport’s delays remind of motorway construction projects in Italy that overshoot their budgets tenfold and never reach completion due to Mafia intervention. One could also blame Germany’s strict adherence to regulations and bureaucracy; an airport with similar defects may well have been approved in other countries without rigorous building standards.

While many issues remain outstanding, the head of the airport Lütke Daldrup is confident there will be no more ‘major hurdles’ that could endanger completion in the new timeframe of an October 2020 opening. Will this construction fiasco finally come to an end? Only time will tell.

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