Runway Runaround: Berlin Airport May Not Open Until Next Spring

Last week, officials announced that Berlin's modern new airport would not open as planned on June 3. Now, it looks as though the first flights may not take off at the facility until March of 2013.

Seats still wrapped in plastic at Gate B 35 of the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. It might be some time yet before they are unwrapped. Zoom
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Seats still wrapped in plastic at Gate B 35 of the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. It might be some time yet before they are unwrapped.

One is tempted to think that in six months, most Berliners will have forgotten the outrage and hand-wringing that has accompanied the embarrassing delays in opening the German capital's new international airport. Either that, or, as a report in the Wednesday edition of the tabloid Bild indicates, residents might still be waiting for the star-crossed project to go into operation.

According to an unnamed senior airport manager who spoke to the mass-circulation daily, "we will be unable to quickly achieve a fully automated operation. As such, the possibility that the airport will be opened in 2012 can be excluded."

Specifically, the manager was referring to a letter sent to airport head Manfred Körtgen on May 9 from officials at Dahme-Spreewald, the administrative district in Brandenburg responsible for ensuring that the airport meets all regulatory requirements. In it, officials rejected Körtgen's backup plan for providing fire protection until the complex system installed at the airport is fully functioning and approved. And that could take several more months.

The report in Bild is not the first time that a 2013 opening date has been conjectured. Since last Tuesday's announcement that the airport's fire safety system wasn't ready for prime time -- just three weeks before the planned June 3 grand opening -- there have been a slew of media reports indicating that problems with the project are much more widespread. In short, the €2.5 billion airport simply isn't finished yet.

Should the delay indeed extend into 2013, airlines are likely to be furious. "I think waiting that long is a terrible idea," said Hartmut Mehdorn, head of the airline Air Berlin, on Tuesday. "We need the new airport as quickly as possible." Given the delay, many airlines had begun banking on an October opening, just as they switch from summer to winter flight schedules. Airport operators are estimating that the delay will cost at least €15 million per month, not including compensation demands.

Possible Personnel Changes

The letter cited by Bild confirms reports that Dahme-Spreewald officials were unimpressed with fire safety backup plans, designed to enable an opening of the airport before all systems were operational. Specifically, the smoke evacuation facility was proving more complicated than planned. Yet instead of immediately bowing to the inevitable and delaying the opening, airport officials instead came up with a jerry-rigged plan to employ some 700 temporary workers to sound alarms and open doors in the case of fire. Airport management referred to the plan as the "man-machine interface."

Dahme-Spreewald officials, for their part, considered the plan hokum, writing that the "man-machine interface … will not lead to success."

Reports have emerged this week that airport officials knew of the potential problems as early as February 28, when the TÜV safety certification organization said that fire safety systems would definitely not be ready by June 3.

There are, however, other problems facing the project, which touts itself as Europe's most modern airport. During tests earlier this spring, it became apparent that there were not nearly enough check-in desks to deal with the planned numbers of passengers. In response, airport managers planned to build temporary tents to house extra check-in desks. When airlines complained, the airport assured its three largest customers -- Air Berlin, Lufthansa and Easy Jet -- that it would be "primarily Turkish traffic (touristic as well as ethnic)" that would be handled in the tents.

Furthermore, Die Welt reports on Wednesday that the airport's baggage handling facilities are not roomy enough, meaning that luggage carts might have to be temporarily parked outside the terminal as they wait to be processed. That, however, would violate security requirements as it would result in the bags being briefly unattended.

The problems could result in consequences for officials on Wednesday. The airport advisory board, headed up by Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, is to meet in the afternoon and both Wowereit and fellow board member Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck have not ruled out the possibility of personnel changes.

cgh -- with wire reports

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