Grounded: Berlin Airport Fiasco Threatens High-Tech Park

By Andreas Wassermann

Photo Gallery: The Berlin Airport Conundrum Photos
DPA

Not long ago Berlin's future looked bright, with a state-of-the-art airport and a new high-tech park set to open where the old Tegel airport now stands. Now, delays to the former may torpedo the latter, particularly now that there are plans afoot to keep Tegel operational for years to come.

At first, Philipp Bouteiller thought it was just a joke -- one of those provocative ideas that are typical of Hartmut Mehdorn, the new CEO of Berlin's much-maligned state-of-the-art airport project. Well known in Germany for having run German rail for almost a decade -- and Air Berlin for the last two years -- Mehdorn has never shied away from making controversial pronouncements.

In recent weeks, however, Mehdorn's idea of keeping Berlin's Tegel Airport open for several years longer than planned so as to provide a cushion for the new airport, known as BER, has become more concrete. As they have done so, Bouteiller's urge to chuckle has completely vanished.

The former McKinsey consultant is overseeing a number of large projects that are planned to take shape on the airport grounds once the last jet has taken off. Developers are hoping to create Berlin's very own Silicon Valley on the extensive premise. A technology park called "Urban Tech Republic" is to house university buildings, research institutes, technology companies and start-ups devoted to developing new, green concepts for energy, transportation and urban development. The restructuring is scheduled to begin in two years.

But now, no one can say whether a start in 2015 will actually be possible, even though the Berlin Senate -- the city-state's parliament -- already agreed on the master plan in April and made €130 million ($167 million) available for the project. Mehdorn, though, now threatens to thwart the plans.

A new agenda

On his first day on the job in March, the CEO casually questioned an established consensus in Berlin's airport politics. The federal government and the German states had come to an agreement in 1996: As soon as the capital's new airport opens it gates, Tegel will close. Mehdorn, though, wondered aloud whether such a step was really necessary.

To be sure, Mehdorn was stepping into a difficult situation. The much touted opening of BER has been delayed several times, once just a few weeks before the first flights were scheduled to take off. Technical difficulties have plagued the terminal's ultra-modern fire safety system and other problems have been discovered as well. The project has become a favorite object of ridicule in both Berlin and beyond -- and there is no planned opening date at present.

Still, Mehdorn's attack on accepted wisdom caught Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck, who chairs BER's supervisory board, off guard. "We don't hold it against Mr. Mehdorn that he hasn't completely familiarized himself with the project yet, after seven or eight hours in office," he said.

Mehdorn, though, had indeed familiarized himself with the details and has seen no reason to change his mind. Three weeks ago, he informed a top Transport Ministry official that he was planning for a step-by-step opening of BER. And that Tegel would have to remain open until the new airport is fully operative.

Mehdorn hopes to provide a precise timeline this summer. But there are indications that his plan could result in Tegel remaining open until 2017, two years after construction on the new technology park is supposed to start.

Already, Bouteiller is having difficulties holding onto potential investors for the Urban Tech Republic in light of the debate kindled by Mehdorn's statements. Three companies have already backed. "We're hoping to win them back," Bouteiller says.

Pulling no punches

Monika Gross, president of Berlin's Beuth University of Applied Sciences, is following Mehdorn's strategy with growing dismay. Her university could become the centerpiece of Tegel's technology park: faculties for energy and landscape planning are set to move to the former airport terminal. "Due to the Tegel project, we decided not to expand our (existing campus)," she says. "Now, progress has to be made."

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit has warned that, even should BER be gradually opened, keeping Tegel operative "for years" is out of the question. It's unlikely that Mehdorn will pay heed to his warning. The assertive executive proved adept at skirting unwelcome political demands during his stint as head of the German rail company Deutsche Bahn.

Indeed, it is not unlikely that Wowereit and Platzeck will soon find themselves in a position similar to that of former Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee. In 2007, Tiefensee presented a draft proposal for the privatization of Deutsche Bahn -- which Mehdorn then sent back with a drawing of a small bomb next to each passage he didn't like. The new draft that resulted reflected most of Mehdorn's proposed changes.

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