The World from Berlin: Airport Opening Delay Is 'A Provincial Farce'

Tuesday's announcement that Berlin's modern new international airport would not open as planned next month caught many by surprise. Politicians are furious and airlines stand to lose money as a result. Commentators say that the embarrassment for the German capital could hardly be greater.

The control tower at the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, scheduled to open some time later this summer, but not June 3. Zoom
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The control tower at the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, scheduled to open some time later this summer, but not June 3.

"Berlin Can't Get It Up." That was the front-page headline on Wednesday's edition of the Berlin-based daily Die Tageszeitung. And it provides a succinct summation of the initial reactions of many upon learning that the German capital's much ballyhooed new airport would not open as planned on June 3. Ineptitude in Berlin, what a surprise.

Airport officials and regional politicians announced the delay on Tuesday, saying that ongoing tests on the facility's fire safety equipment would not be finished in time. A new date for the airport's opening was not immediately set, though Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit suggested a target date some time in August.

"This was more than a nasty surprise," said Matthias Platzeck, governor of the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin. "I am not concealing that I am livid. Such a surprise is simply unacceptable so close to the opening."

It is the third time that the project, known as Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER), has been delayed. Initial planning foresaw an opening in 2007, an ambitious date that, due to protests by local residents and an ensuing legal battle, was pushed back to autumn 2011. When a key engineering company involved in project planning went bankrupt in 2010, the date was set for June 3.

The most recent delay, however, is the most surprising, coming as it did just three weeks before the scheduled ribbon-cutting. It's a catastrophic embarrassment for the city of Berlin, German commentators say on Wednesday.

Left-leaning Berlin daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"What an embarrassment! … The people of the world are looking at the city and laughing. The desert city of Dubai creates new islands in the sea and builds skyscrapers in record time. And Berlin? Berlin can't even open an airport on time. … Too often, Berlin confuses dilettantism with vitality."

"Such a major problem doesn't just fall from the sky. One of the largest, most challenging logistical achievements ever -- that of moving two airports in a city -- can't suddenly be handicapped by a routine problem surfacing. Someone must be desperately searching for an excuse, a distraction from his own failures and mistakes. More is being covered up than revealed. What is a better excuse than fire protection?"

"Still, Berlin has always landed on its feet. Berlin has always made something out of catastrophes, both big and small. And let's be honest. For Berlin residents, a Berlin that is less ambitious, less arrogant and less egomaniacal is more likable."

Business daily Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The invitations to the grand opening had already been sent. In three weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel was to lead thousands of invited guests in raising their glasses to the new gateway to the world. … After all, it wasn't a simple airstrip in the German countryside that was opening, but a metropolitan airport. Instead of a glamorous show, Berlin has served up a provincial farce."

"How many have come before? The rest of the country must have the impression that nothing much really works in the capital. The roof of the main train station is too short, commuter trains break down frequently. … But maybe that is part of the city's charm. Berlin, you are so wonderful."

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The embarrassment is not so much the delay as such. Such facilities in the 21st century have reached such a degree of complexity that even the best engineers are no longer able to have a complete overview. At London-Heathrow, that only became apparent after the opening when travellers were unable to find their bags. In Berlin, the disaster has begun earlier, with an uncertain outcome."

"The real embarrassment is the extreme tardiness of the announcement. It really only became clear just three weeks before opening that a delay was necessary? One may as well send a plane onto the runway and then announce that it will be unable to take off. It does not reflect well on the airport manager, nor on the supervisors -- including the two befuddled leaders Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Matthias Platzeck."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"That large projects are not completed on time has become standard in Germany. But the fact that the chancellor and 10,000 invited guests have to be disinvited just three weeks before the grand opening is shameful. Politicians, airport officials and customers were too credulous. As late as the board meeting held at the end of April, fire safety played but a small role. The problems were either ignored or underestimated. The resulting situation is a debacle for the airport manager. They will now feel the rage of regional politicians, for whom the airport is a prestige project and vital to the economy. Even just a short delay is likely to cost significant sums of money."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Schadenfreude? More like doubts about Germany, particularly Berlin, as a location for business and industry. Such things cannot happen. When they do, it may be that individuals are responsible, but the embarrassment is collective. What works here anymore? Wowereit's impertinent description of Berlin as being "poor but sexy" isn't enough for a European metropolis that is growing into its role as Germany's capital. A few more Prussian values would be welcome."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"A whole string of politicians from Berlin, Brandenburg and also from the federal government have made the mantra-like pledge that the opening of the airport would be an 'on-time landing.' Citizens and the press now feel bamboozled. The disaster demonstrates once again that politicians have learned nothing about recent debates on huge infrastructure projects, like the one surrounding the vast new train station in Stuttgart. Openness and honesty were promised, but not delivered. The planned opening date wasn't called into question until the very last moment."

-- Charles Hawley

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