New airport proves not to be best example of German efficiency

BERLIN LETTER: Anything that can go wrong has done so for the airport, now years behind schedule, writes DEREK SCALLY

BERLIN LETTER:Anything that can go wrong has done so for the airport, now years behind schedule, writes DEREK SCALLY

Wandering the dusty hallways of Berlin’s new airport last May, something felt very wrong. The opening date for Willy Brandt International was just three weeks away, but the place was a still a hard-hat zone.

Our guide lead us past unfinished walls and holes in the floor, declaring confidently: “We’ve run so many tests, we’re right on schedule. We’re not going to have a debacle like Heathrow’s Terminal Five.”

No, instead things are much, much worse. A week after our tour, the June 3rd opening – already a year late – was cancelled. This week another postponement was announced – the fourth or fifth, depending on whom you ask.


The new opening date is some time in 2014, although even that may be optimistic given the new terminal’s many problems.

The biggest concern is the ventilation system: it was not built according to plans, has failed fire safety tests and will have to be replaced.

Other snags include fire exits that exit to nowhere, a faulty computer network and cracking tiles. The airport’s flight code had to be changed to BER after someone belated noticed the original one, BBI, was already assigned to an airport in India.

Then there was the fuss when the airport’s new flight paths were unveiled when construction was almost complete, to the fury of many residents. They were compensated with sound-proofing for their homes but, after courts found the work lacking, thousands of special doors and windows will have to be replaced for a second time.

Some 20 years after Berlin’s new airport was first announced, dates and numbers have lost all meaning. The cost has doubled to €4.3 billion, excluding the latest delays and the eventual bill to compensate airlines and airport traders for costs they have incurred by the delays.

As if that all wasn’t enough, concerns have surfaced before the airport opens that it is already too small.

While the main terminal building is a vast, flat-roofed hanger, it is cluttered with check-in counters and other crowd-unfriendly hindrances.

Rather than disperse passengers – 25 million annually and rising – around a decentralised complex, the airport design funnels all through one security area. Berliners, numbed by the weekly disaster reports, are braced for the world’s most expensive bottleneck.

News of the airport saga has sparked much Schadenfreude elsewhere in Germany, where many are weary of Berlin’s post-unification hype and multi-billion investment boom.

Their delight however at Berlin’s misfortunes is misplaced: Germany’s federal government holds a 25 per cent stake in the project – the remainder is divided between Berlin and the state of Brandenburg – meaning all German taxpayers will foot the final bill.

Foreign reports of the delays have delighted in highlighting a perceived inconsistency between the airport misadventure and the prized notion of German efficiency.

The curious thing about “German efficiency”, a common English-language cliche about this country, is that there is no equivalent in the German language.

Nor, would many who have moved here say, is there any equivalent in daily life.

For every on-time Teutonic train and cutting-edge car, there are countless examples of hair-raising inefficiency and waste. Last year I listed some of my favourite inefficient lowlights: Berlin’s decrepit, decade-old government buildings with leaking roofs and sagging floors; the high-speed trains unable to cope with summer temperatures; the world’s fastest roller-coaster which explodes every time it has been run.

Other examples include Stuttgart’s new train station, not scheduled to open until 2021 but already double the original cost at nearly €7 billion. Berlin’s central station had quadrupled in cost by its opening in 2006 yet lacks a quarter of its roof. Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall, still unfinished, is estimated to have a final cost of €600 million – an eye-watering 679 per cent more than planned.

Chancellor Angela Merkel rowed into the airport debate this week, warning that Germany could not afford to create the impression “that we can no longer handle large infrastructure projects in this country”.

So far Berlin’s Social Democrat mayor Klaus Wowereit has refused to accept any responsibility for the debacle, blaming instead planners, architects and builders. Although he stood down this week as head of the airport’s supervisory board, a solid majority in the Berlin senate means he is likely to survive a no-confidence vote today.

However his political credibility has been undermined and his habit of claiming personal credit for everything that goes right in Berlin has left him unable to slink away from this spectacular failure unless he resigns.Since taking office a decade ago, Wowereit has insisted the capital’s new airport would be his great political monument. At this rate, it will be his mausoleum.