Delayed Indefinitely: Unravelling Berlin's Airport Debacle

Berlin had hoped to gain worldwide recognition for its futuristic new international airport. But after the announcement that the facility won't open on time due to massive safety problems, the city is embarrassed and the hunt for who to blame has begun.  By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: Berlin's BER Embarrassment Photos
REUTERS

Not long ago, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit toured the tower of the city's new international airport, Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt. At 72 meters (236 feet), the tower is 1 meter higher than the one at Frankfurt's airport, currently Germany's most important airport. It's a subtle symbol of Berlin's newfound confidence.

The window-surrounded control center offers a magnificent view. In the distance, Wowereit could make out the new high-rises in his booming city and, below him, the glass-encased terminal that is supposedly the most advanced in Europe. The website of the airport's operating company proudly proclaims: "The future lies in Schoenefeld."

However, when the 58-year-old mayor had seen enough and gotten into the elevator to go down, it got stuck. The affronted mayor and his entourage had to be carefully cranked down by hand from the high-tech tower to the troubled reality below.

Since Tuesday of last week, it has been clear that the broken elevator isn't the only problem with what its operators call "Europe's most modern airport." For starters, massive safety concerns are spoiling Wowereit's "vision of a strong, internationally networked business location with a high-capacity airport."

The opening has been pushed back, the dedication party has been cancelled, and all the rhetoric about the bright shared future of Berlin and its airport has been abandoned. Yet another major project that Berlin wanted to use to highlight its big-city pretensions has gone wrong. Whether it was the airport, the main railway station, the Chancellery or the new headquarters of Germany's foreign intelligence service -- to name just a few troubled projects of recent years -- everything was always supposed to be bigger, more modern and more efficient. And then the costs explode, or the walls crumble, or, in the case of the new airport, the fire safety equipment for protecting an expected 74,000 daily passengers malfunctions.

'A Huge Embarrassment'

For now, no one can say when Wowereit's "high-capacity airport," which was supposed to open on June 3, will go into service. Will it be this fall, at Christmas or not until next year? Even the search for those to blame has so far led to no answers. Did the planners mislead the politicians? Were Wowereit and Matthias Platzeck, the governor of the eastern state of Brandenburg, where the airport is located, justifiably surprised last week? Or does the failure really lie with the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, the most important principals behind the construction project?

At this point, the only thing that is certain is the ridicule. The Wall Street Journal scoffed at the airport as "an example of the city's provincial politics and incompetence in managing such a major construction project."

"The PR machine behind the project has done much to plug the airport as a great example of famous German efficiency," wrote the Guardian. "But many observers say it has been anything but."

And in a SPIEGEL interview, Air Berlin CEO Hartmut Mehdorn said: "It's a huge embarrassment for Berlin, and the whole world is laughing at us now." Air Berlin is Germany's second-largest airline and is planning to make the new airport into a hub.

Even German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer has complained about Berlin's handling of the project, though his ministry shares in the blame as one of the stakeholders in the airport. "The capital region has now made a fool of itself owing to the airport's mismanagement," he said. Together with the aviation industry, he added, "we're now contending with the consequences and trying to limit the damage."

Not Enough Check-In Desks

Already two years ago, it became obvious that the ambitious timetable for the new airport could not be kept when Wowereit pushed its opening back from the fall of 2011 to June 2012.

At that time, the airport operating company -- which is jointly owned by the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg -- had complained in a scathing letter about how an "enormous drop in the productivity of the construction activities" and "qualitative defects" in terms of the fire-safety system had "almost brought building activity to a standstill." In the end, the public principals behind the project threatened its planning group with "damage claims of between €500,000 and €1 million per day of delay in the case of a deferment of the agreed-upon completion dates."

The closer it gets to the airport's opening, the more problems pile up. Take the check-in counters, for example. In tests using several hundred people, sometimes the baggage conveyor belts broke down, and at other times the entire system failed. Even the capacity planning has clearly been overly optimistic. As one insider said, "One assumed that more and more passengers would check in online." Each check-in counter was supposed to handle 60 passengers an hour, but staff members in a test run were only able to deal with half as many people in that time.

It quickly became apparent that the number of check-in counters in the terminal would not suffice. So the management improvised. Internal draft minutes from an April 26 meeting to discuss the progress of construction say that: "Alternative terminals in tent form will be capable of functioning for the opening."

The idea of having people check in in tents sparked massive anger among the airlines. The planners tried to appease them, saying: "The airport assures the three largest airline companies (Air Berlin, Lufthansa, Easyjet) that it is not planning any check-ins [for them] in these terminals." But, for other airlines, the tents are apparently good enough. According to the meeting's draft minutes, "primarily Turkish traffic (touristic as well as ethnic)" was supposed to be handled in the tent.

A two-class check-in system based on ethnicity at the airport named after Willy Brandt, the German chancellor between 1969 and 1974 and winner of the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize? The phrasing itself reveals that the project's managers would seem to have completely lost their bearings.

Bringing in Outside Help

To get some control over the chaos, the planners and engineers working with Meinhard von Gerkan's GMP architecture firm had long since introduced a "traffic light" system. From that point on, their reports to the airport operating company and its supervisory board would have three colors: Red meant that the opening date could not be kept, yellow that it was in danger, and green that there were no problems.

In early December, the light was showing yellow in relation to the airport's smoke extraction system. Engineers had determined that the fire protection flaps known as "dampers" had been installed without a permit. In the case of a fire, they worried that the dampers might not be able to open, thereby trapping noxious smoke in the terminal while thousands of passengers might still be inside. This horrific vision brought to mind the fatal fire disaster that struck Düsseldorf's airport in 1996, killing 17 and causing hundreds of millions in damage.

Wowereit and his colleagues on the supervisory board were baffled. At a meeting on Dec. 9, they wanted to know how dampers could have been installed without official approval. But the airport company's experts eased their worries.

A colleague of Manfred Körtgen, the technical director, told them that the solution that had been found was "technically correct" and that the dampers only had to be approved by building authorities in what was merely a formality. However, the technician also acknowledged that the "timely issuance of the approval" was necessary for the airport to go into service on time. At that point at the latest, the most important politicians had been forewarned, including Wowereit, Platzeck and Rainer Bomba, the senior Transport Ministry official serving as the federal government's representative on the supervisory board.

In an effort to make sure the airport could still open in June 2012, the airport company brought in some additional help. At the beginning of the year, it signed a contract with the German electronics and engineering giant Siemens to upgrade the smoke extraction system in a way that would render it crisis-proof. Siemens employees must have surprised at the situation in Berlin: The plans had gaps in them, and the exact locations for placing the fire detectors had not been marked down. Without this information, the engineers couldn't start with the programming, which would take up to 12 weeks by itself.

Stopgap Measures

On March 20, the worst fears were confirmed. One report from the controlling division of the airport operating company stated that the "fully automatic operation of the smoke extraction system would not be possible" if the airport were to enter into service on June 3.

In their desperate situation, Körtgen, the head technician, and his colleagues decided to resort to unorthodox measures. They considered hiring 700 temporary workers so there would be people to jump in and make up for any technical deficiencies, even if it meant serving as fire sentries. According to this plan, Europe's supposedly "most modern airport" would employ amateurs to sound the alarm or open doors so that the smoke could escape in the event of a fire. Internally, the stopgap measure was referred to as the "man-machine interface."

Airport executives had Wowereit, Platzeck and their colleagues on the supervisory board sign off on an additional €7 million to implement the plan. "Hopefully al-Qaida won't learn anything about this plan," one of the controllers reportedly said in exasperation. But not all stakeholders considered it realistic to expect that hundreds of low-paid workers, hired from Berlin's bouncer scene for example, could quickly receive clearance to work in a high-security facility like the new airport.

At this point, the ambitious airport executives found themselves dealing with officials from Dahme-Spreewald, the administrative district of Brandenburg that is home to the airport. The officials, working out of an old Baroque government building in the small town of Lübben, were responsible for checking that building regulations were being adhered to. They left no doubt that they intended to vet the multi-billion project on the outskirts of Berlin just as thoroughly as they would a snack bar in the next village.

Supervisory Board in the Dark

In early April, one official from the district administration shared his thoughts with airport planners about the idea involving the doormen: He didn't like it at all. The "man-machine interface" would reportedly only be approved if it could guarantee "100 percent fire protection." This would have to be certified by TÜV, a respected German safety-certification organization. To this day, the airport company has not been able to prove it has this certification.

Four weeks ago, it was already clear that there was practically no chance that the airport would open on schedule in early June. Nevertheless, the airport operating company was still keeping the supervisory board in the dark as late as April 20. According to people who attended the meeting that day, Körtgen said that talks were still being held with officials about alternative fire-safety arrangements. The opening date was an ambitious goal, he reportedly stated, but still within the realm of possibility. At the same time, internally, it was already clear by the end of April "that the construction work was some two months behind schedule." Draft minutes of the April 26 meeting say that the biggest problems were the "protection measures imposed by officials" regarding fire detectors and smoke extraction.

Even so, the managers gave no thought to giving up. They didn't want to submit all the necessary documentation for the approval process until May 15. They calculated that the inspection, TÜV assessment and approval would only take two weeks in total.

Silver Lining

So what now? At least Berliners, who are used to coping with adversity because of the notorious breakdowns of their S-Bahn commuter-rail system, are able to find a silver lining in this misfortune: It appears that air traffic at Tegel Airport, one of the three airports being replaced by the one under construction, has been guaranteed to some extent.

Plans had actually called for Tegel's main aviation-fuel storage tank to be filled with sand on Monday as part of a decommissioning program spread out over several months. The thinking behind this was that a few smaller fuel storage facilities would suffice for filling up the last jets taking off from Tegel. But the dismantling plan was halted practically at the last minute.

Still, things would have gotten even worse if the airport operating company's managers had been able to implement another idea. At the beginning of the year, they submitted an application to Berlin's aviation authorities in which they petitioned to already be relieved of their obligation to continue operating Tegel Airport once the new Willy Brandt airport had opened. The executive were trying to cut costs because, as long as they were obliged to keep Tegel in operation, they would be required to keep a fire brigade and other facilities there -- even if jets were no longer taking off or landing.

But the aviation officials were skeptical and denied the request. Instead, they decided that the authorization for Tegel would only expire six months after the new airport had opened. Almost prophetically, their decision did not specify a fixed date.

REPORTED BY DINAH DECKSTEIN, MARKUS DEGGERICH, FRANK HORNIG, PETER MÜLLER, SVEN RÖBEL AND ANDREAS WASSERMANN

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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1.
dziban303 05/15/2012
Have /any/ new airports opened without major problems in the past 20 years? ...Denver, Heathrow, Berlin...
2. Maybe ask the Greeks for help
jpaffett@gmail.com 05/16/2012
Athens managed to open it's new airport on time, maybe Berlin should ask for their help?
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