Top manager faces himself in court

Hannah Cleaver
Hannah Cleaver - [email protected]
Top manager faces himself in court
Hartmut Mehdorn. Photo: DPA

It sounds like a delicious farce - Hartmut Mehdorn, boss of Berlin's delayed international airport is facing compensation claims issued by Air Berlin - filed when the CEO of the airline was... Hartmut Mehdorn.


Sadly there is little likelihood of Mehdorn running from one side of the courtroom to another, to defend Berlin’s long-delayed international airport, BER, and then lead the attack for Air Berlin, although with his reputation for tough talking such a spectacle would be highly entertaining.

The arguments are all being made by lawyers, as Air Berlin sues BER for damages connected with the still-delayed opening, which the airline says has cost it €48 million.

Mehdorn is not expected to be in court at all.

A biography in the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche says Mehdorn was born to German parents in Poland in 1942, but the family soon moved to Berlin and then Bavaria, where his father founded a plastics factory in 1948.

He studied machine engineering in Berlin in the early 1960s. He married a French woman Héléne in 1973, with whom he has three children. His career was largely aircraft-focused, including a five-year stint on the board of the Airbus Holding. 

Mehdorn first rose to international prominence when in 1999 he was appointed head of the board of Deutsche Bahn, with the mission to prepare the colossus for partial privatization.

The no-nonsense manager went about significantly reducing the workforce, cutting tens of thousands of jobs and slashing expenditure.

But as the global recession hit in 2008 and melted what little public and political support for the privatization there had been, the idea was abandoned, leaving a much slimmer Bahn arguably struggling to cope.

Mehdorn's departure in the following year was sparked by a surveillance scandal at Deutsche Bahn which covered more than half its staff between 2002 and 2003. He and four other board members stepped down in the wake of the outrage.

Since the failed privatization and his departure, the emphasis has been on recruiting again, with 10,000 new jobs scheduled for last year.

Mehdorn's name is still invoked when problems connected with low staffing or reduced investment arise - such as last year's crisis at Mainz station which was closed due to lack of signalling staff.

A couple of years after leaving the Bahn, Mehdorn joined Air Berlin, an airline founded by his friend Joachim Hunold, as temporary CEO.

He initiated what many regarded as a severe savings programme and got spending under control at the struggling airline - but provoked strikes by pilots dismayed at poor pay.

Despite initially promising to stay for at least 18 months, he left in January 2013 after just 16 months, and two months after that, took over the reins of BER, the hugely troubled Berlin airport.

His determination, optimism and intractable nature was perfectly illustrated in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine last June. When asked about a report suggesting there were tens of thousands of problems with the airport, he said most of them were unimportant and could be fixed easily.

And when questioned about whether the notoriously problematic smoke and fire detection systems, largely blamed for the airport's delay, left people at risk of burning or suffocating, he said: "The danger of drowning is greater. The sprinkler system has been extensively fitted. Whoever lights just a cigarette will be completely soaked."

When passengers will get the chance to test this promise remains almost completely open, with a date for BER's operating start still undecided.

READ MORE: Berlin airport's 2014 opening delayed again


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