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Berlin's New Airport: Still In A Holding Pattern

Aug 4, 2015
Originally published on August 4, 2015 12:35 pm

Germany may be Europe's economic giant, but Berlin remains the lone major European capital without a proper airport. The mismanaged, roughly $6 billion project to build one became a national laughing stock that has dragged on for years.

Ground was broken on the airport in 2006 and the opening was delayed just shortly before the planned date in 2012. The airport's managers are now pledging that Germany's third-largest airport will open on the outskirts of Berlin before the end of 2017.

Until then, the would-be airport named for the late Berlin mayor and German chancellor Willy Brandt remains a favorite with German comedians. Like these clips that a ZDF network show combined and dubbed a few years ago from the Star Trek movies First Contact and Generations, just as the Enterprise is about to crash land.

In the meme, Lt. Cmdr. Data, who is piloting the starship, says they are out of gas and their only choice is to land at Berlin's new airport. But Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, after learning it's the year 3745, remarks the airport still isn't finished.

Lars Wagner, a spokesman for the new airport, says he's heard it all before.

"From time to time we also hear a new joke, but to be honest, all these jokes are ... not that new," he says.

Nor are revelations about the project's mishaps. Years of bad planning, cost overruns and alleged corruption led to what the new airport CEO Hartmut Mehdorn says were 150,000 defects. Many of the issues nearly tanked the project, including faulty fire protection systems and miles of mislaid communication cables.

Wagner says they've made big strides toward fixing the problems. He dismisses critics' claims that work on the new airport won't be finished before the construction permit expires late next year, and encourages skeptics to come see the progress for themselves..

For the equivalent of about $11, visitors can take a guided tour by bus or on their bicycle around the sprawling complex. On a recent rainy day, about 30 people showed up to get a look at the buildings and runways that will — in theory — handle up to 85 flights an hour.

"We thought we'd come and see what point they are at," says retiree Dieter Froese, 79, who was visiting with a group of friends.

Kristine Sallet, 32, who was with her 9-month-old son, Samuel, says she wanted to see how billions in taxpayer money have been spent so far.

"There are mixed views about this, that some of us don't really believe it's going to open one day," she says.

Also on the tour is her 14-year-old cousin, Andrew Sallet, visiting from Tucson, Ariz.

"She told me about it and I was like: 'Oh cool, it's an empty airport,' " he says. "I've never really seen an empty airport before and it is brand new, so it'll be cool."

He and other tourists wander between the rows of gleaming new check-in counters and stare at the high ceilings in the eerily quiet hall that should one day handle 28 million passengers a year. That is more than at any other German airport, save for Frankfurt and Munich, Wagner says.

One person who refuses to go on these tours is Martin Delius, who is with the Pirate Party and chairs a local parliamentary inquiry into the mishandling of the project.

"It's a pretty good marketing scam," he says. "They finally opened the airport for the public. There are no planes landing there or boarding there."

"Yeah, it's a good thing for the company, actually," Delius says, adding that it's less so for the taxpayers, because people aren't getting to see the work that still needs to be done, including on fire safety and cable systems.

He says his committee will issue a report on those and other airport shortcomings by next spring.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Germany might be the economic giant of Europe, but its capital, Berlin, seems to be missing something kind of important - a good airport. A mismanaged $6 billion project to build an international airport for the city has become a national joke. There is a terminal there and, yes, runways, but the airport still won't open for years. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The would-be airport, named for the late Berlin mayor and German chancellor Willy Brandt, is a favorite with German comedians. Take this sketch that a German TV show created from dubbed Star Trek movie clips, including one in which the Enterprise crash lands.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HEUTE-SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (German spoken).

NELSON: In the meme, the android piloting the doomed starship says, we only have one chance, and that is to land at the Berlin Airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HEUTE-SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Data) (German spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) (German spoken).

NELSON: But it's the year 3745, and airport still isn't finished, the Enterprise captain points out, just before they crash.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HEUTE-SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Data) (German spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Captain Picard) (German spoken).

NELSON: Airport authority spokesman Lars Wagner says he's heard it all before.

LARS WAGNER: From time to time, we also hear a new joke, but to be honest, they are not that new.

NELSON: Nor are revelations about the project's mishaps. Years of bad planning, cost overruns and alleged corruption led to what the new CEO says were 150,000 defects that had to be addressed. Many of the issues nearly tanked the project, including faulty fire protection systems and miles of mislaid communication cables. Wagner says project officials in the past couple years have made massive strides towards fixing the problems. He dismissed critics' claims that work on the new airport won't be finished before the construction permit expires late next year. The spokesman encourages skeptics to come see the progress for themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (German spoken).

NELSON: For about $11, visitors can take a guided tour by bus or bicycle around the sprawling complex. Even on this rainy day, some 30 people show up to get a look at the buildings and runways that will, in theory, handle up to 85 flights an hour.

DEITER FROESE: (German spoken).

NELSON: We thought we'd come here and see what point they are at, says retiree Deiter Froese, who's here with friends. Kristine Sallet, who is here with her nine-month-old son, says she wanted to see how billions in taxpayer money have been spent so far.

KRISTINE SALLET: Yeah, I think there are mixed views about this - that some of us don't really believe that it's going to open one day.

NELSON: The terminal is the highlight for many in attendance. They wander between rows of gleaming new check-in counters and stare at the high ceilings in the eerily quiet hall that should one day handle 28 million passengers a year. That will be more than any other German airport, save for Frankfurt and Munich. One person who refuses to go on these tours is Martin Delius. He is chairing a local parliamentary inquiry into the mishandling of the project.

MARTIN DELIUS: It's a pretty good marketing scam, I would say. They finally opened the airport for the public. There are no planes landing there or boarding there. Yeah, it's a good thing for the company, actually.

NELSON: But less so for the taxpayers because people aren't getting to see the work that still needs to be done, including on fire safety and cable systems, Delius says. He says his committee will issue a report on those and other airport project shortcomings by next Easter. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.