Inside the $8 Billion Airport That’s Been Abandoned for 7 Years
The Berlin Brandenburg Airport was originally scheduled to open in 2010. What went wrong?
Germany’s capital actually has two Cold War-era airports
Whenever Trent Hankinson, the frontman of the band Aqua Seca, flies into Berlin, he says he’s confronted by the fact that for a capital city, Berlin has the worst airport.
“It’s small, cramped, and you have to fly to another bigger airport (Munich or Frankfurt) in order to get on a bigger plane,” he says.
That’s not for lack of trying. Germany’s capital actually has two Cold War–era airports, and a new state-of-the-art airport outside Berlin has been in the works for quite some time. But the Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, which is named for a former chancellor and was first slated to open in 2010 and again in 2012, has been plagued by mismanagement, delays, and cost overruns.
“From what my family in Germany tells me about the airport, it’s something of a meme there.”
Now described as the “ghost airport,” the project was expected to cost two billion euros, but current estimates are 7.3 billion euros (over $8 billion), and it isn’t finished. That doesn’t count the maintenance costs of the unopened airport and the revenue it’s losing by not being open.
“From what my family in Germany tells me about the airport, it’s something of a meme there,” Hankinson says. “I have even heard of a German satirical magazine writing, ‘Germany Builds the World’s First “No Emission Airport” on account of there being no planes.’” This airport isn’t the only one that has run into problems.
Still, the airport’s gates are ready to receive the planes and the terminals are just waiting for passengers, the BBC reports. Work continues on the project, and it’s now scheduled to open in October 2020, the L.A. Times reports.
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What have been the problems with the Berlin Brandenburg Airport?
The stalling of the project is particularly surprising given Germany’s reputation for efficiency. “Everybody’s ashamed, especially because it happened in Germany, where they’re incredibly proud of being good engineers,” says Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, who wrote about the airport in his book The Project Revolution: How to Succeed in a Project-Driven World.
So what happened?
The Berlin Brandenburg Airport was originally conceived in 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down. The city was home to Tegel and Schönefeld airports, but planners thought the reunified capital needed a modern airport. Construction on the project began in 2006.
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“There was, in a sense, a spiral of major errors which contributed to the final result.”
The airport was going to open in 2012, but at the last minute, inspectors found problems with the fire safety system and the opening was pushed back until 2013, according to the BBC. Other setbacks emerged: wrongly numbered doors, escalators that were too short, too few check-ins. And issues only multiplied with leadership changes at the organization overseeing the project.
“There was, in a sense, a spiral of major errors which contributed to the final result,” Jobst Fiedler, a professor emeritus at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, told the BBC. He wrote a case study on the project in 2015. That said, America has its airport construction hiccups too.
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Why has the Berlin Brandenburg Airport not opened yet?
Part of the problem is that the vision for the project was never clear, says Nieto-Rodriguez. Some said the project would replace the existing airports, while others thought it would support the growth of visitors to the city. And there was no clear plan about the scope of the project: what it should look like and what kind of functionality it should have.
Another problem was the many stakeholders, including the federal government in Germany, the state of Brandenburg, the airlines, and the airport CEOs.
“There was no clear governance and accountability about who makes the big decision,” Nieto-Rodriguez says. “Who is the project leader? That is a very big weakness.”
That led to situations such as when a manager on the project thought they should change the design from a rectangle shape to a U-shape to accommodate a luxury shopping centre.
“In the middle of the project, they say no, no, no, now we’re going to change the shape,” Nieto-Rodriguez says. “You can change the design when you’re planning, but not when you’re already implementing.” Cost overruns and delays are nothing new with major construction projects, but he points out that new airports have recently opened in Qatar and China on schedule.
“They were not telling the truth when things weren’t going well, so everything exploded.”
Finally, the project leaders weren’t honest about what was going on, which led to public scrutiny and ridicule.
“They were not telling the truth when things weren’t going well, so everything exploded,” Nieto-Rodriguez says. “Good communication is essential. Even if you’re not doing well, people will appreciate the honesty and transparency.”
As a touring musician, Hankinson says he would love to see the new Berlin airport open as soon as possible. “But something tells me that will never happen,” he says.
Nieto-Rodriguez is more optimistic that the airport will be a viable project once the security concerns are addressed. “I could imagine that five years down the road, we’re going to think this is an amazing airport,” he says. “But we’re still not there.”