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Tear down Berlin's unfinished airport and start over!

March 1, 2018

Why can't Berlin finish big public projects? German engineering has become a cliche and they can seemingly build anything on four wheels, but when it comes to four walls it's a different story, says DW's Timothy Rooks.

BER construction site
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

What happened in Berlin on June 3, 2012? Not what was scheduled to happen, that's for sure. This particular Sunday was supposed to mark the grand opening of Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BER). Yet less than four weeks prior to the planned inauguration came the surprise announcement that the airport would not open as scheduled.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony was canceled. Chancellor Angela Merkel got to stay home. Since then almost 2,100 days have gone by without a single check-in or takeoff.

One highly anticipated opening date after another has come and gone — and made a laughing stock of German know-how. In the end, this medium-sized mega project is only big in one way: It is a huge money pit.

Read more: Berlin airport plans 'soft launch' without main terminal building

Earlier this year, the airport management announced that BER would finally go on line in October 2020. Last week it said it will require another €770 million ($940 million) to finish the airport, pushing the total cost over the €7 billion mark. This week, the supervisory board will meet and decide where to get the cash.

BER ups and downs
The Berlin daily Tagesspiegel is keeping track of all the "ups and downs" and counting the days since the original openingImage: Tagesspiegel

Joint ownership, no responsibility

From the beginning, the airport project was a confused jumble since two separate states — Berlin and Brandenburg — and the federal government were all involved. Planning failures, changes to the design — including accommodating the massive A380 — poor subcontracting and shoddy work were only part of the problem.

Read more: Stuttgart 21 — Germany's other engineering fiasco goes off the rails

A botched privatization attempt, the need to soundproof surrounding homes, and compensation lawsuits from the delayed opening of shops, restaurants and even the unused rail terminal have added enormously to the original €2.8 billion budget.

But the real problems seem to be a twin pack of moral hazard and a simple lack of accountability.

Politicians with limited project management experience were running the supervisory board and could freely make decisions with the knowledge that by the time any complications came to light they — the decision-makers — would be gone.

Besides this there was the near-guarantee that the government would be forced to step in to cover extra costs on such an important infrastructure project, giving extra breathing room and perhaps taking away some of the fiscal pressure.

Was it all just a dream?

Everything seemed very different back in 1992, when planning for a new airport was begun. At the time, the city had just been named the capital of a reunified Germany. It also already had three airports: two in the former Western sector — Tegel and Tempelhof — and one southeast of Berlin in the former East German state of Brandenburg — Schönefeld.

At the time, Berlin was a run-down city still divided in many ways. Unemployment was high and in a bid to better manage air traffic, it was decided to consolidate all three airports into one. By the time BER would open, the other airports would no longer be in operation.

After 15 years of preparing, ground was finally broken in 2006 on land next to Schönefeld — taking advantage of and building on Schönefeld's existing runways and other infrastructure — an obvious cost-saving measure.

Read more: Berlin votes to keep Tegel Airport open

But fast forward, and Berlin is a very different city compared to 1992. Jobs are easier to find and the population has grown by around 300,000. The German capital is now the second most populous city in Europe after London — which is serviced by six international airports.

Traffic on Berlin's A100
After it opens, traffic authorities expect nearly 30,000 more vehicles a day on the main roads leading to the new terminalImage: Imago/Frank Sorge

Taking to the skies

Meanwhile, Germans are flying more than ever. Last year, Berlin's two airports handled 33.3 million passengers. For years, experts have been saying that even before it opens, the new airport will be too small for the growing number of passengers. 

Don't worry, though, the master planners already have a new 17-year, three-phase master plan to enlarge the still unfinished airport to handle 55 million passengers. But should a brand new airport continue to be a construction site for another two decades?

Read more: The changing skies of Europe

The only solution is to quit throwing good money after bad and stop construction immediately. It is hard to say what would happen then, but Berlin can keep using its ragamuffin Tegel and Schönefeld airports until a fitting and comprehensive solution is created from scratch.

A prerequisite for success would be taking the planning out of the politician's hands and giving it to professionals who would be above the squabbling local and federal governments. Burdensome tendering processes need to be made easier. Additionally, the lowest bidder should not automatically get the job, because this often leads to substandard work, the contractor's insolvency or a renegotiation of terms.

Burning money on prestige projects is always unacceptable, yet in this case so many lines have been crossed that someone finally needs to say loud and clear: Tear it down and start over!