German Airflop: Why Berlin Can’t Finish Its Airport

January 10, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

How, you might ask, could the Germans, of all people—the Germans who manufacture the machine tools the world craves because they never break down—have made such a hash of building their showcase Berlin airport?

After all, it’s been 23 years since the Cold War ended, West and East Germany were reunited, and the first plans were floated to build a modern airport worthy of the new old capital. Yet the grand opening of Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) has just been postponed for the fourth time, until 2014 “at the earliest.” The technical head of airport construction, who was hired half a year ago when his predecessor was fired, publicly called the airport’s problems “grave, going on dreadful.”

Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, who was once touted as a future German chancellor, resigned his chairmanship of the airport oversight committee a few days ago, and his Social Democratic Party is already busy figuring out how to dump him from city hall. Berliners are applying their trademark sarcasm to cast their airport management’s schlamperei or sloppiness against the Chinese ability to erect one world-class mega airport after another in jig time.

That’s not what you expect from Germans.

In fact, there are a host of reasons for the fiasco, and a host of scapegoats. It all began a generation ago with Lufthansa’s scorn of Berlin as a backwater and some spillover of sleaze in the Berlin construction industry.

Lufthansa—having been shut out of West Berlin during the Cold War years when the Soviet occupiers of Berlin let only planes of its American, British, and French co-occupiers land in West Berlin—refused to make Berlin a major destination after unification. The financial capital of Frankfurt remained its hub, and Germany’s flagship carrier exercised no clout to accelerate BBI construction. To this day, remarkably, there are no direct flights by Lufthansa or any other airline between Berlin and Washington, D.C.

Then murky local construction practices, along with endless political squabbling over rival sites, scared German investors away for many years. By the time businessmen added their euros to the major stakes of the Berlin and Brandenburg governments (the wait was long enough that the whole currency system had changed in the meantime from German marks to European euros), the inauguration target was set as 2008 or 2009. It’s been downhill ever since.

In 2005-06, a year-long injunction halted BBI construction altogether on the rural site to the southeast of sprawling Berlin. Citizen appeals against the planned BBI noise levels rose to the country’s top administrative court, which lifted the injunction but mandated stricter decibel ceilings.

In 2008 the beloved mid-city Tempelhof airport was shut down in its 85th year, in anticipation of BBI’s opening. Surrounding burghers who remembered the airfield’s heroic service during the 11-month Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 called a referendum to preserve it, but it drew only a low turnout. No longer did younger generations share quaint memories of the Soviet attempt to starve and freeze West Berliners by blocking all land routes to the half city through the surrounding Soviet-occupied zone. No longer did they celebrate the American and British C-47s and C-54s that landed every two minutes to bring in 8,000 tons a day of life-saving meat, milk, potatoes, coal, chocolate for children, and, on one occasion, a live camel.

In spring of 2012, it was the turn of Tempelhof’s companion in-city Tegel airport to be closed down in deference to the behemoth BBI. Small, very user-friendly Tegel got its start as an auxiliary landing field during the Berlin Airlift. It was located on what was once the Kaiser’s hunting ground and in the 1930s served as a base for rocket tests before that facility was relocated to Peenemünde. It could accommodate longer runways than the hemmed-in Tempelhof could, and the French commandant of its sector built the airport with a 2,428-meter-long runway, then the longest in Europe, in a record 90 days.

Unlike Tempelhof, Tegel got a last-minute reprieve. Four weeks before the scheduled Berlin-Brandenburg’s gala inauguration, a second BBI delay was announced that would cost an extra billion euros on top of the BBI’s projected two billion euro price tag and would leave Tegel to continue to this day as the capital’s sole international airport.

By now it’s too late to start over and ask if Berlin really does want to have a global hub that might end up shuttling transfer passengers through its portals and not bringing all that much income to community tills. But perhaps it’s not too late to petition the Chinese sovereign fund that bought a 10 percent stake in Heathrow last November to come rescue Berlin’s airport as well—and bring its own management.

Author’s full disclosure: I cannot vouch for the impartiality of this blog. I live in the northwest corner of Berlin, twenty minutes away from the boutique Tegel Airport, where a taxi drops me a few meters away from my departure gate. I have to confess that every time another BBI delay is announced, my neighbors, travelers and shopkeepers alike, cheer.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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