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When did Germans forget how to build?

Tom Bristow · 3 Jun 2014, 13:22

Published: 03 Jun 2014 13:22 GMT+02:00

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I would be in a “completely different world”, according to Berlin Brandenburg Airport’s brochure. This would be an “experience” not an airport, with a 20,000 square metre shopping centre containing 110 shops alongside 40 restaurants and bars.

I will indeed be in a “completely different world” this weekend. I will be travelling through an airport built by the Communists after World War II which, despite its age, still has a temporary air and was meant to close years ago.

Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport is short on toilets, shops, seats and signs. You have to walk through Burger King and an Irish pub to get to your plane.

The only thing it is not short on is passengers. In 2013, almost seven million people passed through Schönefeld. In April, passenger numbers at Schönefeld and Berlin’s main airport, Tegel, were up seven percent on last year.

How do I get to Berlin then?

Berlin is booming. Tourist numbers increased three percent in the first three months of this year; PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) names the German capital as one of the most desirable cities in the world to live in and it has a great future ahead of it.

But it has a problem. Its airports are at capacity. How can it grow when it has no way of getting more people there?

Berlin has been waiting for a new airport since reunification almost 25 years ago, but all it’s got is a national scandal.

The half-built airport looks complete from the outside but a report in September found it had 66,500 problems. The main problem is the smoke extraction system and fire alarm system which, put simply, do not work.

On Tuesday the chair of the airport inquiry committee Martin Delius suggested pulling the cord on the airport. "It is time to think seriously about winding up the project," he told the Rheinische Post.

Cutting your losses in a project which has cost around €5 billion seems like a monumental waste of taxpayers’ money, but the alternative could be worse. Some estimates put the final bill at €7 billion, and each month the site is costing €17 million in maintenance.

Whether it is ever finished or not, Berliners and German taxpayers are stuck with an expensive legacy after a decision in 2003 was made to put the airport into public rather than private hands.

To blow €5 billion of taxpayers’ money on an unfinished airport which was originally supposed to be completed for €2 billion, in a city with a higher debt per head than Detroit is obviously irresponsible.

Aspects of the way it has been run could even be criminal. Days before the two-year anniversary of the cancelled opening, the project was hit by a corruption scandal.

Its technical director is accused of asking for €500,000 from a prospective contractor. His predecessor, meanwhile, will be paid €1 million over the next three years for doing absolutely nothing.

In another sitcom-like twist Air Berlin under its then boss Hartmut Mehdorn filed a case for compensation against the airport for the delayed opening in 2012. The boss of the airport is now... Hartmut Mehdorn, prompting the German press to label the case “Mehdorn vs Mehdorn”. 

On Tuesday Air Berlin said it had reached an out-of-court settlement with the airport for an undisclosed sum.

These failings have provided a rich source of humour for cartoonists and satirists, but the airport’s authorities seem oblivious to irony.

Their website boasts how you can “do much more than just fly at Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER)”.

In fact you can do everything but fly. A press release put out last Monday advertised a “BER on bike” season. Yes, cycling fans, you have the chance to ride around a beautiful airport in peace and quiet without having to worry about planes landing in front of you. You even get a packed lunch to enjoy under the peaceful skies.

Story continues below…

Then there is the “BER Experience” tour – presumably leaving some time in 2021 with tickets costing five times the advertised price.

No exception

Long-delayed and over-budget infrastructure projects hit by corruption allegations are not something outsiders associate with Germany. Germany was always the land of engineering excellence with train stations and airports to enjoy – and indeed Munich's and Frankfurt's airports are major successes.

But in the last decade the country has repeatedly failed at big building projects. When did Germany forget how to build?

The Local regularly reports on these disastrous projects but the sheer incompetence and scale of them are best appreciated when listed together.

This table of shame risks demolishing Germany’s reputation for engineering, infrastructure and competence. But all projects are now so far down the line it is too late to pull out now. There is little doubt that they are needed. The country’s future depends on them being finished on time and within (their new) budget.

SEE ALSO: Bribery probe hits Berlin's scandal airport

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Tom Bristow (tom.bristow@thelocal.com)

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