Photo Gallery: Investigating the Berlin Airport Debacle

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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.

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.

Losing Valuable Time

In 2007, Leinemann's client Hochtief calculated that the many special requests would drive the total cost up to more than €1 billion. Competitors submitted bids for similar amounts. Experts later confirmed that the project couldn't be done for less, and today it is clear that the estimates were fairly realistic, with the current cost of building the terminal coming in at about €1.2 billion. But officials in Berlin and Potsdam, the Brandenburg state capital, insist that the costs would have been higher if a construction company had been put in charge. They attribute the cost increase to the fact that the project is bigger than first envisioned, and that fire safety regulations have become stricter.

Wowereit was determined to do it himself, and to do it more cheaply, at that. The terminal was not to cost more than €630 million, he decreed at the time. He insisted that a workable terminal could easily be built for that amount, saying: "There is no need to change the financial concept."

Instead of hiring a general contractor, Wowereit's team at the Flughafengesellschaft took control of the project. This was intended to save money, promote the local construction industry and keep the project on schedule.

Valuable time was lost. New plans had to be drawn up and invitations to bid had to be prepared. The main construction contracts were only awarded in early 2009, and yet the airport was supposed to open in October 2011, shortly after the election to the Berlin state parliament. "Everyone in the industry knew that it was destined to fail," says Leinemann.

The mood in the supervisory board fluctuated between euphoria and anxiety. None of the members had any experience with such large construction projects. Wowereit and his fellow board members seemed to be flying blind toward their ultimate goal.

Whereas managers with experience in finance, aviation, technology and construction run the operations at airports in Frankfurt, Hamburg and Düsseldorf, the billion-plus-euro Schönefeld project is almost exclusively in the hands of politicians, civil servants and union officials.

The relatively inexperienced supervisory board members pursued their own agendas, which sometimes had very little to do with the complex issues of construction management.

The Name Game

The politicians seemed more interested in passionate debates over what to name the new airport. Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich and Helmut Kohl were mentioned as possible names. With Wowereit's and Platzeck's support in the supervisory board, the name Willy Brandt -- a former mayor of Berlin and chancellor of West Germany -- eventually won out.

The board also devoted considerable attention to the question of whether and where a two-story jetway for the Airbus A380 was to be built. Just before construction was slated to begin, the board decided to move the costly jetway from the main terminal, where all airlines can dock, to the Air Berlin departure area -- a decision that required expensive and time-consuming scheduling changes.

A levelheaded look at the numbers and strict supervision of management was not always in evidence. In 2009, when the financial crisis dealt a blow to the budget, the federal government pushed for the appointment of a chief financial officer, but Wowereit rejected the idea.

Perhaps he was trying not to jeopardize the good relationship he had developed with Rainer Schwarz, who was hired as managing director in 2005. According to one observer, Wowereit and Schwarz had "a relationship like that of a master and his dog." Schwarz was apparently loath to contradict Wowereit when the mayor set targets for the construction project. "We cannot and will not rest," the supervisory board chairman stressed again and again.

By instituting efficiency programs, cost-cutting packages and time-saving measures, Schwarz and his co-managing director Manfred Körtgen did what they could to remain on schedule and not exceed the budget. Four times a year, they provided the supervisory board with a progress report in the form of a slide presentation.

Wowereit and his fellow board members relied on these reports. For a long time, they developed no real sense for critical details, technical problems or conspicuously optimistic timetables and cost estimates. In short, they behaved like an individual who builds a home, blindly trusts his workers and, in the end, is shocked to see that the walls aren't straight.

Making the Impossible Possible

His spokesman Richard Meng begs to differ, saying that Wowereit always dealt with all of the important issues related to the airport, both within and outside of supervisory board meetings. According to Meng, Wowereit regularly discussed financial, technical and scheduling issues with the relevant experts. He said that the mayor's relationship with airport management was in keeping with the normal conventions between a supervisory board chairman and managing directors. That is, the former supervises while the latter manages day-to-day operations.

By June 2010, Wowereit and the other supervisory board members realized that there were serious problems. Schwarz and Körtgen presented a bleak situation to the board. Construction in Schönefeld was several months behind schedule, allegedly because plans were missing, incorrect or incomplete. Wowereit's dream of scoring points in the 2011 state election with his new, major international airport had gone up in smoke. For better or worse, he approved a new opening date of June 2012.

By that time, the mayor had been forewarned. He should have drawn the conclusion to hire different managers. But the supervisory board stuck to the old team, fearing that replacing it would only lead to further delays.

Instead, Wowereit and Platzeck publicly gave the impression that there were no problems. The mayor and the governor proudly devoted themselves to the subject of art at the new airport. On Sept. 17, 2010, they unveiled three works of art for the terminal, under the motto "The Contrast Between Land and the Air."

One of the pieces was a giant, flashing chain of glass beads, which is to surround the two-story jetway for A380 jets. His work was inspired by the "Starship Enterprise," explained the artist, Olaf Nicolai, saying that the gadgetry in the film had "a hobby-like character, and yet it made the impossible possible. I like that."

Making the impossible possible -- now that was something the supervisory board liked to hear. This art, Wowereit raved, would "eminently reflect Berlin's creativity." Platzeck even said that he detected a "special way of examining reality."

Devastating Assessment

At about the same time, Peter Danckert was coming to grips with the special reality at the airport. Danckert is a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the SPD. His district includes the airport site in Schönefeld. Danckert has been keeping an eye on the project since 1998, when he was first elected to the Bundestag.

After initially criticizing the choice of Schönefeld as the location for the new airport, he then turned his attention to conditions on the construction site.

In August 2010, Danckert made a trip to Potsdam. His goal was to sound the alarm and warn Platzeck's advisors against unpleasant surprises.

Danckert had brought along a well-known civil engineer who had already managed several large infrastructure projects and had now studied the planning process for the new airport. His verdict was devastating. Thousands of plans were lying around in disorganized fashion in the offices, the engineer reported, and there was a great deal of confusion on the construction site.

According to the engineer, it would take months to establish order. "You have to tell Matthias about the chaos," Danckert said to Platzeck's airport expert.

Danckert, feeling that his warning was not being taken seriously, gave a newspaper interview in mid-October 2010. "I assume that there will be more significant delays, as well as additional financial burdens that will not be insubstantial," he told the B.Z., a Berlin daily.

Unheeded Warnings

This time there were reactions, but not the ones Danckert had hoped for. An airport spokesman rejected his comments, calling them "silly gossip." Wowereit characterized Danckert's position as "irresponsible."

In early January 2011, Danckert contacted Platzeck directly. The two Social Democrats met at a New Year's reception in Teltow, a town on the southern outskirts of Berlin.

"Matthias, all of this is going to be much more expensive and take longer than you think," Danckert remembers having said to the Brandenburg governor.

"If I were in his place, I would been electrified," says the lawmaker today. "I would have asked: 'How do you know this? With whom can I discuss the problems at the airport?'" But Platzeck chose not to heed Danckert's warnings. Instead, he placed his trust in Körtgen, the chief planner, who insisted that he had the situation under control.

The opening date was approaching. To discuss the situation in Schönefeld, Wowereit and his fellow board members held a closed meeting at a Brandenburg hotel on Dec. 9, 2011. The hotel, Residenz am Motzener See, is in an idyllic lakeside location.

The location seemed to rub off on the attendees, who calmly discussed a few organizational issues prior to the official opening six months down the road. Waste-disposal contracts were to be awarded, as was the contract for cleaning the outside of the building, and a 50-square-meter (538-square-foot) plot of land needed to be sold. The opening party, complete with a "VIP event," was also on the agenda.

According to the minutes, the supervisory board, almost as an aside, acknowledged statements by Körtgens "that the June 3, 2012 launch date is still realistic." Körtgens also gave the all-clear signal for the "fire safety issues that were recently raised." In his report, he wrote: "The solutions that were developed are technically correct. The only thing missing is the official permit."

There is no mention in the minutes of any prolonged discussion of the issue. Wowereit seemed satisfied, saying: "The supervisory board acknowledges the report. The chairman thanks everyone involved for the good work done so far." The meeting ended at 5 p.m.

The agency that was ultimately supposed to affix its stamp of approval to the project is located in Lübben, a town in the Spreewald region, southeast of Berlin. Wowereit and his partners would never have dreamed that a provincial agency would be able to stop them. But that was precisely what did happen.

Protecting His District

Stephan Loge is the head of the district authority in Lübben. He worked his way up as head of the buildings department, and he is proud of his people. He is also determined that nothing bad should happen to his administrative district, which includes the airport site.

He is still incensed today over something that Peter Ramsauer, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), said in an interview in early summer. "Do you really believe that the building minister is about to deal with statements made by the press spokesman from some administrative district?" Ramsauer said derisively at the time.

As Loge sees it, the fact that the large construction site in Schönefeld became a laughing stock worldwide can be attributed to the arrogance and high-handedness of the politicians involved. "Again and again, we were made to feel the condescending attitudes of the powerful, especially those in Berlin," he said. Officials in the capital often voiced the concern that his agency might be in over its head.

But it appears that others were overwhelmed instead. On March 13, Loge had a member of his staff write, in a letter to Berlin: "Please do everything possible to ensure that the passenger terminal can be placed into service with the approved fire safety concepts." There was no response.

Their Heads in the Sand

Some 3,000 fire safety doors in the terminal and 1,300 smoke removal flaps were causing problems. As a temporary solution, Wowereit's airport managers proposed deploying 700 doormen at the terminal, a plan they called the "man-machine interface."

Loge still shakes his head today about the audacious idea. Under current regulations, 500 incident scenarios would have had to be tested to implement the plan. Nothing is going to come of that, the district administrator thought to himself.

On April 20, Wowereit chaired a supervisory board meeting in Schönefeld. Once again, he addressed the issue of selling tiny parcels of land. And, once again, the opening ceremony was on the agenda. For example, the board discussed the idea of giving each guest at the party a "voucher for a meal and a drink."

The 12-page minutes of the meeting contain only 12 lines addressing "measures to safeguard the startup of BER," including "final spurt measures" the supervisory board was supposed to approve. Problems with fire security and scheduling prior to the opening date remained vague.

But the head of the supervisory board knew all too well how explosive the issue was. A month earlier, Schwarz had urgently requested a meeting with Wowereit to discuss the "current problems relating to start-up." The meeting took place on March 30. Why didn't Wowereit follow up at the last supervisory board meeting before the planning opening date?

Humiliating Breakdown

While the Berlin mayor was holding back, the district administrator in Lübben was heading toward a decision, although he was still missing some of the documents he needed for the approval process.

On May 6, Loge called operations head Körtgen at the airport to request the documents. When he was told that everything was on schedule, Loge was shocked. He issued an ultimatum two days later, saying that he couldn't guarantee the opening unless he received an "expert test plan" on the fire safety concept within 24 hours.

Wowereit's telephone range on the evening of May 6, a Sunday. It was Schwarz, who was calling from a crisis meeting at the airport site. The opening date was in jeopardy, the airport manager told the mayor.

When asked to come up with a solution to the problem, Wowereit responded with yet another act of helplessness. His airport managers had been desperately working on the fire safety system for weeks, but the supervisory board chairman believed that he could rescue the opening through official channels. "I offered to call the big bosses of the individual companies, if necessary, and ask them to send more manpower," says Wowereit, recalling his telephone conversation with Schwarz.

It was too late. On the next day, a Monday, Schwarz had to capitulate. Fire safety problems made an opening according to schedule impossible, he told the mayor. The next day Wowereit and Platzeck held a crisis conference to take responsibility for the humiliating breakdown.

Both men have thought long and hard about how it could have come to this. They are willing to take political responsibility, but they are also quick to point out the special role of a supervisory board.

"Its obligation is to supervise, which is what it did," says Wowereit spokesman Meng. "The management is responsible for adhering to deadlines and budgets." Platzeck's officials hold a similar view, saying that they want to focus on solving the problems. "Now the airport must be completed according to plan and in a credible manner," the state chancellery in Potsdam announced.

Confronting the Mayor

Lawmaker Danckert received an unexpected call in mid-May. "Well, you clairvoyant!" the caller said. It was Platzeck.

Danckert had had plenty of time to think in the meantime. He'd had a stroke and had been bedridden for some time, and he plans to leave the Bundestag next year. He no longer has to worry about hurting anyone's feelings.

"I'm no clairvoyant!" he replied to Platzeck. And then he explained to him how, in his view, a supervisory board has to act. He told Platzeck how he, Danckert, did it when he was the supervisory board chairman of an ailing meat company, Moksel, many years ago. "Once a week, sometimes two or three times, I was given a report by management," says Danckert. He brought in accountants to advise him, visited slaughterhouses and met with business partners in the meat industry. "Why weren't you and other members of the supervisory board more active?" Danckert asked Platzeck.

There it was again: the question of why politicians often run up against their limits when serving as construction project managers and members of supervisory boards. Their resources are easily overwhelmed by the complicated interplay of technical, financial and scheduling plans, in Berlin and in the rest of Germany alike. And heads of governments also lack the time to effectively manage and supervise a complex construction project.

Danckert agrees. "The failings of the supervisory board are obvious," he says. "The shareholders should have dismissed it long ago."

But how is that supposed to work, when the two representatives of the most important shareholders, Berlin's mayor and Brandenburg's governor, also hold the two top posts on the supervisory board? Should Wowereit and Platzeck dismiss themselves?

In late June, Danckert confronted Wowereit with the issue. The mayor had appeared before the Bundestag budget committee to explain the airport debacle. "What would you do with a supervisory board chairman who delivered that kind of a performance?" the parliamentarian asked the mayor. He didn't get an answer.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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