More than 8 years behind schedule, Berlin’s new airport opens today amid an epic crisis in air travel

October 31, 2020, 7:00 AM UTC

Berlin’s new international airport is opening today, with special Lufthansa and easyJet flights landing together to mark the occasion.

The timing could hardly be worse. For one thing, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that has shut down most international travel. The main terminal at Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (usually known as BER) may have the capacity to take up to 27 million passengers a year, but it will start operational life as a relative ghost town.

However, the opening is also notable for being a whopping eight and a half years late. BER’s schedule has become a long-running and somewhat tragic joke in and beyond the German capital, having been extended repeatedly for a variety of face-palm-inducing reasons.

Litany of errors

First, BER’s opening was canceled because of an incompetently designed fire protection system. It subsequently emerged that the system’s chief planner was not actually a qualified engineer, though his business cards claimed he was. “Everyone thought I was an engineer,” said Alfredo di Mauro, who was only a technical draftsman. “I just didn’t contradict them.”

Di Mauro was fired, as was the airport’s technical director, when a host of other flaws came to light. Some escalators were too short; cabling had been incorrectly installed; there weren’t enough check-in desks.

The federal and state governments running the project were urged to rip it down and start again, but they did not, and more trouble ensued: more fire-system flaws; a key contractor, Imtech, going bust; the biggest tenant—Air Berlin—also going bust; thousands of lights that could not be turned off, leading to monumental energy bills for an unopened airport; sliding doors with no power supply, requiring the reopening of walls; sagging ceilings in the parking garages; arrival and departure boards that wore out and needed replacement—years before the actual opening.

There was even a problem with the trees planted near the terminal. Around 600 had to be dug up and replanted, though reports differ as to whether this was because they were in the wrong place or because they were the wrong kind of tree.

BER’s budget started at €2.8 billion ($3.3 billion). It ended up costing over €4 billion more than that. The reasons included not only incompetence but corruption too. A department head was jailed in 2016 for taking bribes from Imtech, the contractor that went bankrupt.

Not the only one

The BER debacle has been viewed around the world as a grimly hilarious counterpoint to the stereotype of Germans as being extremely efficient and well-organized. This is understandable, given the international nature of major airports. (BER is Germany’s third-largest hub, after Frankfurt and Munich.)

But to those within the country, it is by no means the only recent example of major construction projects going way over schedule and budget.

Another notable example is that of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall, known popularly as Elphi. Originally scheduled to open in 2010 at a cost of €77 million, the facility was finally inaugurated in 2017, having cost a total of €866 million to build—almost all of which was paid for by Hamburg’s taxpayers.

Jacques Herzog, one of the star architects, subsequently described the initial €77 million estimate as “absurdly low”—a common problem with publicly funded projects, which need political backing at the start. But nonetheless, Elphi ended up as a triumph, known for its superb acoustics as well as its striking, nautical look.

Stuttgart 21—a massive revamp of the southwest German city’s main rail station and surrounding area, to enable the passage of long-distance trains—is another story. From its approval in 2007, the project faced massive opposition from local protesters over environmental concerns. One of its many delays was caused by the need to resettle some endangered lizards, which set everything back by a year and a half.

The Stuttgart scheme was initially supposed to cost €4.5 billion and open last year. The current plan is to get it operational at the start of 2026, with the bill running as high as €8.2 billion.