Germany's Disappointing Reunification How the East Was Lost

By and

Part 5: Too Much Supply and Too Little Demand

"It cannot be the goal of our policies that as many people as possible should move from East Germany to West Germany. Instead, it is my goal to provide them with an outlook for a future life there, in their homeland."

(Helmut Kohl, Jan. 10, 1990)

In the late morning, a peak period in German airspace, the biggest rush is already over at the Ostseeflughafen Stralsund-Barth airport. Two small aircraft have already landed, and a third is parked in front of the tiny hangar.

Airport manager Paul Wojtasik is standing in front of a red riding mower. The next plane isn't expected until the afternoon, which gives Wojtasik the chance to catch up on some of his other duties: servicing the fire department vehicle, doing some paperwork and making sure the toilets are clean. "I'm probably the only airport manager in Germany who picks up a toilet brush now and then," he says.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the economy in eastern Germany suffered as a result of the poor public infrastructure. Many rail lines were in poor condition and the telecommunications network was hopelessly outmoded. After two decades of publicly funded development, the situation has changed dramatically. In fact, today it's more often the case that the private sector is unable to keep up with the rapid pace of expansion of the public infrastructure. The problem is the same as it is with the water parks: too much supply and too little demand.

Extremely Well Connected

With a population of about 1.7 million, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is Germany's second-smallest state, but it is extremely well connected to international aviation. Anyone who chooses to pilot his own aircraft to the state can choose among five fully-equipped regional airports and six smaller business airports: on the island of Rügen, in the Mecklenburg Lakes region, on the Baltic Sea coast and on the island of Usedom.

There is only one problem: The world's commercial airlines haven't quite discovered the outstanding conditions for aviation in Germany's far northeastern corner. The government has invested about €130 million in airport expansion over the last 20 years. Nevertheless, almost all of these airports are underused and in the red.

The Heringsdorf airport needs annual state subsidies to stay afloat. The management of the privatized Parchim International Airport complains about the stagnant air cargo business. And in the generously expanded terminal building at the Rostock-Laage airport, there are so few passengers that some have even wondered whether it's necessary to heat the building in the winter.

Losing Money

And at the Ostseeflughafen Stralsund-Barth airport, there is also a gaping void between expenses and profits. In the last few years, the government in the state capital Schwerin has spent more than €4.5 million on a brand-new runway and state-of-the-art lighting system. But annual passenger volume has declined sharply, from just under 28,000 in 1992 to roughly 8,000 today. The operating company, which is owned by the cities of Barth and Stralsund, as well as the Nordvorpommern administrative district, is losing about €250,000 a year. Two years ago, the state audit office concluded: "An improvement in the economic situation is not to be expected."

If the rules of economics were applied, the money-losing airport would have been closed long ago. But when it comes to developing the east, economic principles seldom apply.

Instead, the old logic used by lobbyists for the transportation industry still applies, which holds that there are no superfluous airports, just airports that aren't receiving enough government funding.

Maintaining the Infrastructure

Wojtasik, the airport manager, is standing in front of a tall construction fence. A digger is breaking off pieces of concrete from an old East German barracks which once served as the airport terminal. The building was so dilapidated that it wasn't even licensed to house a snack bar. Whenever VIPs landed at the airport, Wojtasik would have their limousines drive directly to the aircraft, so that the passengers wouldn't see the rundown bathrooms. "We couldn't compete with a building like that," he says.

That's about to change. Last year, the state government approved about €2.6 million to pay for a new terminal which will include a restaurant, conference rooms and an 11-meter (36-foot) tower. When the building is finished next year, local officials hope that it will finally provide the airport with the boost it needs, bringing in more tourists to stay in nearby hotels and more businesspeople to open offices near the airport.

The prospect of fresh state funding has also silenced local airport critics. Until recently, the city of Stralsund had planned to withdraw from the consortium that owns the airport, because the losses had become too significant for city officials. But now the administration has changed its mind.

Officials are now saying that if the city were to withdraw, it could be required to pay damages to the remaining partners. Besides, the state subsidies would go to other regions.

Although the Stralsund city officials don't have a clue as to where the additional passengers that the airport needs to operate at a profit are going to come from, this isn't their primary concern. According to a city presentation, "The maintenance of high-quality infrastructure is reflected in the budget in the form of costs."


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