Berlin marks 2,000th day since new airport’s non-opening

Project turned to farce by political interference, chaotic planning and sloppy building

Construction workers outside  Berlin Brandenburg International airport  in May 2016. A new report suggests that fire safety issues may delay its opening further. Photograph:  Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Construction workers outside Berlin Brandenburg International airport in May 2016. A new report suggests that fire safety issues may delay its opening further. Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Berlin’s new international airport celebrated an embarrassing anniversary on Thursday: 2,000 days since it didn’t open in 2012.

Plagued by political interference, chaotic planning and sloppy building, the cost of Berlin Brandenburg International (BER) airport has almost trebled to more than €6.6 billion and counting.

And, after almost 25 years of planning and a decade of building, no one can say for sure when the ghostly terminal in southeastern Berlin will see its first passenger.

The curse of BER first struck five years ago when final safety checks revealed that the smoke extractor system was defective and, in case of fire, risked exploding. With no safety certificate the opening party, already planned right down to the canapés, was cancelled.

That was in 2012 and the closer engineers looked, the worse the situation got. Much of the airport, it emerged, had not been built to plan. Some 90km of cabling was defective, often buried in concrete instead of run through shafts, meaning the entire terminal had to be rewired. The electric doors had no electricity; no one knew how to turn off the lights. The car park floors began to sag because not enough steel girders were used in building; the escalator from the underground train station was too short; one in three rooms was incorrectly numbered.

Since 2012 airport planners have come and gone, each attempting – and failing – to right BER’s many wrongs. So far their fixes have cost €3.5 billion and counting, with running costs for the closed airport of more than €1 million a day.

Next month, after five years of remedial works, the chief airport planner promised to announce a new opening date – the seventh.

Unknown problems

But that seems less likely now after a new report leaked on Thursday appears to flag a new series of previously unknown problems, in particular with the smoke extraction and alarm systems.

It’s the latest setback in a project cursed because of a decision made in 2001 by the newly-elected Social Democratic Party (SPD) mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit. Heading a left-wing government, he cancelled a pre-existing contract with construction company Hochtief to build the airport.

Mr Wowereit insisted he and the airport’s other political owners – the state of Brandenburg and Germany’s federal government – could build better and cheaper.

But instead hundreds of contractors and subcontractors did their own thing with little oversight from either the planning authority or its politician-heavy supervisory board.

Making a bad situation worse: a regular flow of special requests from politicians that forced dozens of late, expensive planning changes that tipped an already confusing situation into chaos.

Now the latest progress report from external consultants, leaked to the Tagesspiegel daily on Thursday, speaks of “grave deficits in the technical systems, above all, once more, in fire protection”.

The problems are so grave that the previous worst-case scenario opening date of 2021 – 15 years after the first sod was turned – may not be met. When – if – Berlin’s new airport eventually opens, it will already be too small.