An airport delayed | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 09.01.2013
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An airport delayed

Scheduled to open last May, Berlin's new airport will not be taking off this year, either. Far from being the German capital's door to the world, the project has been mired by planning disasters.

There once was a time when Berlin had three functioning airports: Tegel, Tempelhof and Schönefeld. But after reunification, the political leadership decided this was no longer fitting for what was now Germany's new capital. Rather, Berlin deserved an airport that could compete with Germany's other major airports in Frankfurt and Munich.

After some difficulty in choosing a site, a decision reached in June 1996: Schönefeld, the former East Berlin airport, was to be upgraded to become the city's new airport, while Tegel and Tempelhof airports would be closed. It was a decision that today's politicians may be regretting, as the new airport project has gone from one mishap to the next. Its opening has been postponed four times.

When construction began on September 5, 2006, it was announced that the first aircrafts would be landing at the new Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg Airport in October 2011.

First signs of turbulence

But even then there were first signs of turbulence: the operator, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH, demanded more space for restaurants and shops. Further demands followed in 2007, inculding more jetways, moving walkways and departure gates were needed.

The organisers decided to adhere to the planned schedule and, in accordance, Tempelhof, Berlin's oldest airport, was shut down on October 30, 2008.

Worker in the new Berlin airport (Photo: dpa)

Always under construction

Only in June 2010 did the airport company recognize that time was running out. The planned opening date at the end of October 2011 was moved back to June 3, 2012. The reasons given were the bankruptcy of a planning company and stricter safety regulations.

By early 2012 the owners said they would stick to the new opening date by all means necessary and that there would be no more delays.

From the start, Schönefeld was a controversial site. Both Jüterbog and Sperenberg, two former Soviet military airfields significantly further from Berlin, also made it to the shortlist. But Schönefeld's suburban location on the southeastern edge of Berlin proved decisive.

Row over night flights

The downsides: noise pollution for nearby residents and a ban on night flights.

There were several rounds of negotiations about the latter. Allowing them would have meant being able to attract new business, particularly in air freight, but on October 20, 2009, a noise control plan was agreed upon. Between midnight and 5:00 a.m., no regular flights would be allowed. Meaning, of course, that they would be allowed in late evening hours until midnight and after five in the early morning.

In October 2011, a lawsuit brought against the plan for night operations by several Brandenburg communities, along with about 40 residents, was rejected by the Federal Administrative Court.

A holding pattern

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Brandenburg state premier Matthias Platzeck (Photo: Steffi Loos/dapd)

In the crossfires: Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (l) and Brandenburg state premier Matthias Platzeck

By spring 2012, the opening date was approaching fast. Several times, hundreds of extras were called in to simulate daily operations in real time. Check-in, baggage handling and security checks were all tested. Journalists were shown around the airport and newspapers printed ran stories about the upcoming transfer of gangways, fire-fighting vehicles and ground personnel.

According to the plan, in the night of June 2-3, flight operations at Tegel airport were to be completely stopped and redirected to the new airport. But on May 8, less than four weeks before the opening date, the opening was unexpectedly stopped due to fire protection problems. The planning department in Dahme-Spreewald district in Brandenburg state, where the airport is located, had withdrawn its permission.

The chairman of the airport supervisory board, Berlin's Social Democratic mayor Klaus Wowereit, set March 17, 2013 as the new date. At the same time, chief planner Manfred Körtgen lost his job.

But there was more trouble ahead: In June 2012, residents of the area near the airport obtained a court order for better soundproofing. With its previous noise abatement program, the airport company had "systematically failed" to meet requirements, the Higher Administrative Court of Berlin-Brandenburg ruled. For the operators, that meant additional costs. The costs would now exceed previous estimates by about one billion euros($1.3 billion), amounting to a total of more than four billion euros ($5.2 billion).

By September 2012 it became clear that an opening date in the spring of 2013 was no longer feasible.

The airport board moved the date once again - this time to October 27, 2013. A financial shortfall of about 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) was revealed - for construction, noise abatement measures and additional costs due to the postponement. This meant the overall cost had increased to around 4.3 billion euros ($5.6 billion).

Not enough legroom

At the same time, Berlin's parliament established a committee to investigate the airport affair.

In December 2012, several reports appeared that described the airport as dangerously close to full capacity. They said it was too small for the expected number of passengers, while both the check-in counters and the baggage handling systems would be running at full capacity as soon as the airport opened.

Rainer Schwarz, head of Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH (Photo: Rainer Jensen/dpa)

Rainer Schwarz may not be in the pilot's seat for long

On January 6, 2013, several newspapers, citing supervisory board sources, wrote that the opening would be delayed once again. This decision, they said, had already been made on December 18. According to the reports, flights would be arriving at Willy Brandt Airport in 2014 at the earliest.

The reported reason for the new delay was construction errors, particularly in fire protection. One day later, Klaus Wowereit announced his resignation as head of the supervisory board of the airport company.

A supervisory board meeting will be brought forward to January 16 to discuss the possible sacking of airport CEO Rainer Schwarz.

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