Project Megalomania: How the New Berlin Airport Project Fell Apart

The investigation into the massive delays in opening Berlin's new BER international airport have begun. Managers have been fired and architects have been sued -- but what about the capital's mayor, who has led the prestige project since 2001? SPIEGEL takes an in-depth look at what went wrong.

Photo Gallery: Investigating the Berlin Airport Debacle Photos
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At least the ticket machines work. Their lights flash, they accept money and they spit out valid tickets. A train arrives at the deserted station underneath the terminal four times a day. Running the empty train is supposed to keep the station ventilated.

The baggage handling system is also fired up twice a week, as if passengers were already handing over their suitcases in the check-in area, to prevent the conveyor belt from rusting.

The new international airport in the suburban community of Schönefeld outside Berlin felt like an abandoned, haunted castle when a delegation from the city's parliamentary investigative committee showed up for an inspection recently. A funereal silence hangs over the airport, which was supposed to be handling 74,000 passengers every day starting in June.

Work should actually be in full swing to make sure that the new October 2013 opening date becomes a reality. But the company that manages the airport is still involved with its error analysis, as well as with adjusting plans and programs. Will the opening be a bust once again, for a fourth time?

For the last six months, the public has watched with a mixture of annoyance and amusement as "Europe's most modern airport," as it's called in the advertising, turns into a debacle. But the investigation into the causes of the delays is moving just as slowly as work on the terminal. The investigative committee has only just begun its work, and it doesn't plan to present its final report until at least the end of 2013.

According to Mayor Klaus Wowereit, the reasons for the scheduling problems and massive cost overruns have already been examined and the necessary consequences drawn. The former chief engineer was let go, and the planning group headed by architect Meinhard von Gerkan was fired and sued.

Wowereit, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), also recognized early on that the one person who doesn't hold any share of the blame is Wowereit himself. "I don't see what concrete accusations should be leveled against the supervisory board," says Wowereit.

But he is the one who pushed through the new airport and, as head of its supervisory board, has been in charge of the project since 2001. That's why he cannot push aside the political responsibility for what is currently Germany's biggest problem construction site. His Berlin record is closely tied to the costly project.

Public-Sector Building Problems

Why do so many things go wrong when politicians get involved with construction projects? The Stuttgart 21 train station, the Cologne subway system, Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall, the new headquarters for the BND foreign intelligence agency, the new Berlin airport -- the list could go on and on. Each project has its own, unique weaknesses, but they all have a few things in common: exploding costs, unmet deadlines and plenty of finger-pointing.

There are good reasons for the fact that the public sector often struggles with such large-scale projects. For one thing, it is not responsible to investors but to the people. It has to act transparently, involve citizens, manage the money and solve complex infrastructure tasks.

But now public building has reached a level of complexity that is apparently too much for the state to handle. Slimmed-down administrations are hardly capable of efficiently controlling construction projects. And supervisory boards staffed according to party proportions fail when it comes to monitoring projects. Then there is the tendency of some politicians to build monuments to themselves, which explains why schedules and opening dates are sometimes geared toward election timetables, instead of being based on real conditions at the site. Cost estimates tend to be cosmetically enhanced, because payments are often not due until after the groundbreaking ceremony, when it's already too late.

"The public sector must take its function as builder more seriously," says Felix Pakleppa, the managing director of the German Construction Federation. Companies need legitimate budgets and reliable planning, he explains. "Many administrations simply lack the experts to manage complex construction projects," he says.

Airport architect Gerkan learned a lesson from the debacle, namely that "the political world can no longer handle such projects."

For Matthias Platzeck, governor of the state of Brandenburg, where the airport is located, and the deputy chairman of the airport's supervisory board, the problems affect everyone involved. "Apparently today's major construction projects are so complex that those who plan and execute them are equally overburdened," says Platzeck, a member of the SPD. The consequences, he fears, are far-reaching: "Society could be overwhelmed by the constantly growing complexity."

An Ambitious Mayor

But particularly in Berlin, the failure of the public sector should have led to an honest evaluation of the situation long ago. SPIEGEL has embarked on a search for the truth. It leads to documents and reports, in addition to the politicians, planners and lawyers who accompanied Wowereit and his airport for years and can furnish information about the project. It will provide a picture of an ambitious mayor who expected a great deal, perhaps too much, from a new airport: an international aviation hub, more jobs for his cash-strapped city, more tourists, and more prestige, both for Berlin and himself.

The story began 12 years ago. Wowereit, who had just become mayor, was determined to achieve something for his city, which was suffering from the financial consequences of German reunification. He dreamed of a modern airport that could turn Berlin into a big city worthy of admiration once again, and promptly placed the project at the top of his agenda. He assumed the chairmanship of the supervisory board and promised: "I am confident that the airport can be finished by 2007."

At the time, the plan was that a consortium involving the construction company Hochtief would finance, build and operate the airport. The state would merely be the principal, but the project would be placed entirely into private hands. Wowereit, however, believed that he could run the project just as well as the private sector. In 2003, he fired the consortium and announced that the government was taking over the project. "I don't let myself be pulled over a barrel," the mayor said. The private sector profiting at the expense of the public sector? Wowereit was determined to show that there was an alternative.

That was how Project Megalomania began. Starting with about a dozen employees, the Flughafengesellschaft (Berlin Airport Company) began managing a construction project that was worth billions.

'The Disaster Was Predictable'

There were shortcomings at every turn. Switching from the private to the public sector cost time, money and energy. The project lacked construction plans, engineers and financial experts.

The only thing that existed in abundance was the self-confidence of the project's top manager, Wowereit. He was the one who promoted the project, more so than Platzeck, whose state owned 37 percent of the Flughafengesellschaft, and the federal government, which owned 26 percent and acted as more of a passive onlooker.

In 2005, Wowereit took stock of the project for the first time. "It's become a success story in the last few years," he said, noting that the Flughafengesellschaft was now "in a better position economically and in terms of staffing." The mayor also didn't neglect to mention who deserved the credit, saying: "Well, one shouldn't overrate one's own accomplishments, but I will say, and say it with pride: Without my work as chairman of the supervisory board, we would not be where we are today."

On Sept. 5, 2006, Wowereit and Platzeck met in Schönefeld for the groundbreaking ceremony. "We're going to prove that three public-sector owners can build a project like this," Wowereit said.

The work on the new terminal was supposed to get underway quickly. Once again, Hochtief held out hope that it would be awarded the contract. Although the option of running the airport was now off the table, the company, based in the western German city of Essen, felt that it stood a good chance of securing the contract.

Hochtief executives quickly learned that the project had changed since Wowereit had been put in charge. Now the walls were to be covered with expensive walnut veneer paneling. The roof was to be built in a futuristic, free-floating design. And the granite used for the floors at other major airports, like Hamburg and Düsseldorf, was no longer good enough. Berlin's new terminal had to have expensive Jura limestone floors instead.

The new airport was to become the gateway to Germany, shaping the first impression visitors receive of Germany and its capital: modern, self-confident and cosmopolitan.

"Everything was top-of-the-line. It looked fantastic. Really, really chic. We were pretty astonished," says Ralf Leinemann. He is sitting in the library at his Berlin law firm, describing the history of a catastrophe in the making. "The disaster was predictable; it was unavoidable," he says.

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BTraven 11/23/2012
Should they really manage to get the airport running the next problem looms – it will be working to full capacity from the beginning. Normally, the Flughafengesellschaft should already have started to set up a second terminal. By the way, they need a new runway, too. It's a great disaster. BA's problems with Terminal 5 were only mere bagatelles.
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