Berlin’s airport travails hurt German engineering pride
Building due to begin operations in October 2020, nearly a decade later than planned
Berlin airport. When work on the site began in September 2006, the opening was set for 2011. That has since been repeatedly pushed back, while the project’s budget has more than doubled from €2.5 billion to €5.3 billion. Photograph: Getty Images
It has been such a mess that one senior Lufthansa executive recently predicted it would have to be torn down and rebuilt.
But after years of scandal and controversy, Berlin’s new airport is finally inching towards completion. The €5.3 billion building will begin operations in October 2020, nearly a decade later than planned. Germany’s biggest national joke is readying for primetime.
Engelbert Lütke-Daldrup, boss of the airport operating company, knows many will view the new deadline, first unveiled last December, with scepticism. Since work began on BER, as it is known, its official opening has been postponed six times.
But on a recent press tour of the building, he promised there would be no more delays. “We’ve deliberately gone for a date that’s reliable, that has sufficient reserves built in to cover all unforeseen circumstances,” he said. “It means we’ll all have to be a bit more patient – the public too.”
Mr Lütke-Daldrup whisked journalists through the new terminal building, a cavernous, light-filled space the size of eight football fields. Eerily empty now, it will one day swarm with travellers: by 2040, BER will be capable of processing up to 55 million passengers a year.
“With BER the city will finally get the airport it deserves,” said Burkhard Kieker, head of VisitBerlin, which promotes tourism to the German capital.
But it’s questionable whether it will ever be able to shake off its reputation as a national embarrassment. “BER is not exactly a glorious chapter in the history of German engineering and construction,” Mr Lütke-Daldrup said.
That is an understatement. Dogged by technical snafus, poor planning and dizzying management changes, BER has become a byword for incompetence.
When work on the site began in September 2006, the opening was set for 2011. That has since been repeatedly pushed back, while the project’s budget has more than doubled from €2.5 billion to €5.3 billion.
Thorsten Dirks, a senior executive at Lufthansa, said last month that all the equipment the airline had installed in BER was now hopelessly out of date. “My prediction: the thing will be pulled down and rebuilt,” he said.
Critics think the 2020 deadline will go the way of all the others. “This is the same team that never managed to get it up and running on time and crashed all the previous deadlines,” said Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, an airport planner who has been one of BER’s harshest critics. “Why should it be any better this time?”
What is troubling for Germany’s self-image is that the Berlin airport is just one of a series of prestige construction projects that have run into trouble. The €789 million Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s spectacular new concert hall, was seven years late and more than three times over budget, while a huge redevelopment of Stuttgart’s main railway station has also suffered big delays and cost overruns. In December, a new high-speed rail link between Berlin and Munich became a laughing stock when its first train arrived more than two hours late.
Mr Lütke-Daldrup blamed a regulatory system that had been distorted by sectoral interests. “We have quadrupled the number of building regulations over the past 20 years,” he said. “There are scarcely any engineers or experts who know and understand them all.”
Meanwhile, planning procedures – BER had to go through 3,000 of them to receive full approval – took too long and were “over-bureaucratised”, he said. “We need to discuss whether every new rule really profits society.”
“We had to make the station’s fire prevention system compatible with that of the terminal, and that was a huge technical problem,” said Mr Lütke-Daldrup. “It took us years to remedy it.”
Sceptics say that even if the airport opens on time, it will immediately face a problem: it’s not big enough. “The crucial mistake was that from the start it was too small, because they wanted to save money,” said Mr Faulenbach da Costa. The airport has, he said, insufficient capacity in everything from “check-in counters, baggage reclaim carousels, security checks and park positions for planes”.
Mr Lütke-Daldrup admitted that on its scheduled opening in 2020 BER will be able to handle 33 million passengers – only just matching the capacity of Berlin’s two existing airports, Tegel and Schönefeld, both of which are bursting at the seams. But he said BER will gradually be expanded to handle more travellers, with a second terminal due to be built between 2020 and 2025.
BER’s travails – combined with the Elbphilharmonie and Stuttgart sagas – have threatened to put a dent in Germany’s reputation for engineering excellence and efficiency.
That might not be such a bad thing, said Mr da Costa. “We’re always seen as the headmaster, lecturing everyone all the time, and now we finally have the chance to be like everyone else. It makes us more likeable.”
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018