Germans are famous for their efficiency and being on time. But a much-delayed, expensive new airport in the German capital, Berlin, is rapidly destroying that reputation.
Located in the former East Berlin neighborhood of Schoenefeld, the new airport is to replace three others that serviced passengers in the once-divided city. One of those, Tempelhof — made famous by the Allied airlifts of food and supplies during the Soviet blockade of the late 1940s — is already closed.
At the moment, the airport named for late German chancellor and Nobel laureate Willy Brandt is scheduled to open in October 2013. Few here believe the new date will stand, however, given the scrapping of three prior opening dates because of construction delays, cost overruns and safety concerns.
The project, which was supposed to be a proud symbol of the unified capital, has instead become the butt of many jokes. There is even a satirical song on the German network ZDF's Morning Magazine program.
Using Ronald Reagan's "Open this gate" line in his famous speech against the Berlin Wall in the background, the German singer urges his countrymen to stop complaining about the delayed opening. He quips that they should take pride in the airport's record for being the quietest worldwide.
But to many Germans, the airport debacle is no laughing matter. The remaining two airports can't handle the growing passenger volume in this global hub. The delays have also already cost the major airlines that service Berlin millions.
"It was quite painful," Lufthansa Senior Vice President Thomas Kropp says of having to repeatedly scrap relocation plans.
German carrier Air Berlin sued airport officials last month over the delays.
Questions About Costs, Delays
German taxpayers and watchdog groups also want to know why the project is costing billions more than originally projected. Martin Delius, who is chairing a local parliamentary inquiry into the project, says the level of mismanagement he and his team have uncovered thus far is shocking.
"There is no solution for this disaster," he says of the airport, which is Germany's highest-profile construction project. "All we can do is try to minimize the damage."
Delius adds Germany's reputation for precise engineering and management as well as timeliness has taken a huge blow because of the airport.
"It's gotten to the point that our friends from Southeast Asia who've invested a lot in Germany and buy our expertise are starting to think twice," he says.
So who is responsible for what's happening at the airport?
Critics blame the supervisory board, particularly Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and political ally and Brandenburg Gov. Matthias Platzeck, for inadequate oversight. The chief engineer and architect for the project who answered them have both been replaced
A spokesman for the new airport, Lars Wagner, waved off questions on what could have been done to prevent the delays and cost overruns. "What's important now for us is to look ahead," he says.
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Germany reunified a little more than two decades ago. East and West came back together after the long division of the Cold War. And since the Wall came down, the country has spent billions to make the capital city of Berlin sparkle again. The crowning glory was to be a new airport. Planners bragged that it would turn Berlin into a global transportation hub. But the project has proved an embarrassment. There's been delay after delay and cost way over budget.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN WHISTLE AND ANNOUNCEMENT)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: First-time travelers to the aging, Tegel Airport are often surprised to learn that it is the main gateway to the capital of Europe's financial powerhouse. One such traveler is Norwegian Torre Bergrren. He chats with a friend over a beer as they wait for their connecting flight.
TORRE BERGRREN: This is my first time in Berlin and been in this airport for an hour, so it's...
BERGRREN: It's not much of an impression to speak about.
NELSON: In fact, Tegel is the busier of two airports that currently serve Berlin, both of which are struggling to cope with the 70,000 passengers on average who fly to the city every day. These airports, and a third one that has since closed, were to be replaced with what the planners bragged would be Europe's most modern Airport. Instead, the Willie Brandt Airport in Berlin has become Germany's most embarrassing project.
Nearly two billion euros in cost overruns, poor planning and safety concerns have prevented the airport - named for a former German chancellor and Nobel laureate - from opening three times in the past 12 months. Some here joke that the airport won't be ready until 2024, when Berlin's mayor hopes to host the Olympics here.
German television network ZDF played this satirical song about the airport on its morning magazine show.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
NELSON: Using this line from Ronald Reagan's famous speech against the Berlin Wall....
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
NELSON: ...the German singer quips that residents should be proud that the airport holds the record for being the quietest.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)
NELSON: But to many, the Willy Brandt Airport debacle is no laughing matter. Some officials estimate German taxpayers will be paying for the mistakes for at least two decades.
Airlines that service the capital have also lost millions of euros because of the delays, prompting Air Berlin to file a lawsuit against airport officials last month. Other carriers, like Lufthansa, are also contemplating legal action.
THOMAS KROPP: It was quite painful.
NELSON: That's Lufthansa Senior Vice-President Thomas Kropp.
KROPP: We have thousands of workforce involved. We had some complications. We are also discussing about re-compensation with the airport.
NELSON: He adds that he hopes Willy Brandt Airport will open next October as currently planned. City officials are scrambling to meet that deadline. They've fired the project's chief engineer and architect and plan to resume construction this month. A local parliamentary committee, headed by Martin Delius, is also investigating the project.
MARTIN DELIUS: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says the mismanagement his team has uncovered thus far is shocking; adding all they can do is try to minimize the damage.
DELIUS: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says the airport is a huge blow to Germany's reputation when it comes to precision engineering and management.
Aviation analyst Cathryn Buyck, reached by phone in Brussels, says such projects are well-known for their delays and that Berlin air travel won't suffer for it.
CATHRYN BUYCK: Well, I think the aviation industry is used to cope with adverse circumstances all the time. There are storms. There are wars. There are floods. The airline industry is a very flexible and adaptable industry.
NELSON: Buyck adds that she believes Berlin's other airports can manage the airplane and passenger load through next October.
Willy Brandt Airport spokesman Lars Wagner agrees with her assessment.
LARS WAGNER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: But he dismisses questions on what could have been done to avoid the problems in the first place. He says, what's important now for us is to look ahead.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.