1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why can't Berlin simply build an airport?

Boehme Henrik Kommentarbild App
Henrik Böhme
July 31, 2019

Berlin's unfinished airport just started adding a new terminal, even though the original structure is still not open. Despite a major test run of systems in the first building DW's Henrik Böhme just isn't convinced.

Grass growing in front of Berlin's BER airport
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz

The new BER airport in Berlin will certainly be renamed once again — it will go from being known as Willy Brandt Airport to being named after another German social democratic politician, Klaus Wowereit, whose sense of self is stratospheric. Wowereit used to be governing mayor of Berlin and became famous with three sentences. First: "I'm gay, and that's good." Second: "Berlin is poor, but sexy." Third: "I will finish building the airport."

For the first phrase he deserves respect. For the second he gets a laugh. But for the third he should be tarred and feathered. He originally wanted to make Berlin (and the surrounding state of Brandenburg) happy with a new airport. If he had only left it alone and let the professionals take over the airport would already be open, costs would have remained manageable and the image of Berlin would have remained stable at "poor, but sexy" instead of being drug through the mud.

Of escalators and missing railings

If this airport, where no plane has ever landed, is anything, it is a disgrace. It stands for political failure, cover-ups, chicanery, scapegoats and waste. Above all, it must be a permanent memorial, a reminder to politicians to never go it alone on such a project!

DW business editior Henrik Böhme
DW business editior Henrik Böhme

The former mayor has made Berlin, indeed Germany, look ridiculous. Though only Berlin might laugh at someone like Wowereit, now the whole world is laughing about the failed airport project.

The inauguration of the airport was first scheduled for October 30, 2011. That's exactly 2,832 days ago.

Another six opening dates came and went. For the second attempt on May 24, 2012, an estimated 40,000 guests (!!) had already been invited, and people had tickets for flights to and from BER on June 3, 2012, when the first planes were due to land. The party was cancelled at short notice a mere three weeks beforehand.

All the expert reports, consultancy contracts and dismissals, as well as the many legal case files would take a lifetime to read. Just printing out a list of recent building problems would mean the end for a medium-sized German forest.

And what shortcomings they were — and are! Apart from the now infamous smoke extraction system (called "the monster" in specialist circles) with which the real misery began, problems include escalators that are a few steps too short, rainwater that flows down the facade into the ventilation system when the wind blows in the wrong direction and dowels that are not fireproof. Add to that sections of the in-ground fueling system that did not fit together, meters of missing stair railings, no data link to the fire department and finally, over 1,000 trees that were improperly planted!

Read more: Tear down Berlin's unfinished airport and start over!

And what about Willy Brandt?

Many might think BER is just a curious and funny story. It's not; it's sad. Some politicians may have seen this differently in their delusions of grandeur, because after all it's the taxpayers who have to settle the bill in the end. And that bill will be gigantic. The original cost estimate has ballooned from €1.7 billion ($1.9 billion) to now over €7.3 billion. But the airport is still not open; even that number is sure to rise.

Ultimately it's certainly good and necessary to build an additional new terminal. It would be ironic if it would be finished before the rest of the airport.

But should Terminal 1 actually be opened next year, it would have to immediately be given historical landmark status since it is filled with so much obsolete technology. After all, just last year 750 monitors were replaced. After six years of just hanging around and flickering away the old things had reached the end of their lives. Cost: half a million euros, but who cares?

Incidentally, airport officials should apporach the descendants of Willy Brandt and ask once again if the building should really be named after him. Because Brandt, another former Berlin mayor and German chancellor, really doesn't deserve that fate.

Poor little rich Germany

Boehme Henrik Kommentarbild App
Henrik Böhme Business editor focusing on international trade, cars, and finance@Henrik58