Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Eight years late, and the scandal of Berlin’s messed-up new airport only gets worse.
Will Berlin’s new airport ever be finished? Last week the German capital announced for the fifth time that its long-awaited Willy Brandt Airport—more commonly known as Berlin Brandenburg—will be delayed once again. It will be at least 2018 by the time the airport comes into service, and it will arrive at a cost that, by the time of completion, will likely have tripled to more than €6 billion.
It’s been hard to keep track of exactly what’s going wrong at the construction site. First it was the fire safety system that was poorly designed and needed replanning. Then it turned out there weren’t enough check-in desks. Cooling systems weren’t strong enough, and the luggage handling capacity was too low. The current hold-up is down to the automatic doors: They simply won’t open, and now up to 1,200 of them may need to be entirely rewired.
It’s not just the sheer incompetence that is mind-boggling, it’s the enduring power of that incompetence, a power that has managed to remain consistent over years of delays. If Berlin Brandenburg were a vast, glittering air palace that was trying anything bold or new, these holdups might be more understandable, if no less frustrating.
In fact, as you can see in the photo above, the building is actually a dull, medium-sized hangar sitting sullenly and unremarkably across the runway from Schoenefeld Airport, Berlin’s main budget hub. It would have looked fairly conservative even if it had been completed on time in 2010. The debacle has gone so far that there are now calls to remove the name of the popular former German Chancellor and Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt from the airport’s title, to avoid associating him with such failure.
This gift that keeps on taking is sending unsettling ripples of disruption out into the city it was supposed to serve. First off, there’s the ongoing cost. Keeping the airport unopened is hugely expensive—a local Green Party representative tagged the monthly outlay at around €30 million.
If you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching car-crashes in slow motion, this critical campaigning website allows you to track the ongoing cost to German taxpayers as it happens by adding up all the different expenses incurred by the non-functioning airport. At time of writing, the rate seemed to be more than €5,000 every 10 minutes or so. Down below, the website tallies up what else the money could have bought: 6,226,202 spots for children in kindergarten, 50 years more service for Berlin’s main existing airport at Tegel, or four more versions of Berlin’s lavish Central Station, completed in 2006.
One reason for this cost is that all those planes destined for the airport still have to land somewhere else. That somewhere else is Tegel Airport, the main air hub of former West Berlin, an appealing but outdated 1970s fossil of a building that was supposed to be taken out of service in 2012. Pressed into remaining open by the new airport’s failure, Tegel has had to trundle on.
A hollow concrete and glass hexagon on to which cheaper, emergency terminals have since been added, Tegel is currently functioning a bit like a clapped-out old car that can only drive if someone actively holds the door on. It has needed regular patching, but is still managing surprisingly well. Its calm, almost elegant feel is a welcome respite from the truck-stop awfulness of Schoenefeld Airport, next to the new airport site.
The airport’s surprising ongoing success has inspired a 30,000-signature petition to keep it open permanently, reasoning that Berlin’s popularity as a travel destination will mean that the new airport may not have enough capacity when it finally opens. Tegel’s continuing use still poses a problem, though. That land was supposed to be freed up for a science university and new housing, with more projects due for its large area in the future. Now these projects have been put on hold.
More broadly, the airport does few favors for the city’s reputation. The city’s governing elite have been struggling to pull Berlin away from the “poor but sexy” image it actively promoted in the 1990s (the phrase came from then-Mayor Klaus Wowereit) toward a slicker identity, presenting itself as the polished, efficient capital of Europe’s leading nation. This process is hardly helped by the fact that the city’s largest public project is a constant reminder that the idea of ubiquitous German efficiency is more truism than truth.
Given that many Berliners are ambivalent about their city’s growing symbolic role within Germany and Europe—locals can shudder when the foreign media uses “Berlin” as a synecdoche for the government—it might be tempting to laugh at how Berlin’s catastrophic airport is skewering the best laid of plans. It’s nonetheless ordinary Berliners who are shouldering the lion’s share of the burden. As the Berliner Zeitung put it:
This disaster doesn’t just affect taxpayers. The wasted money is missing elsewhere, even when the costs do not appear directly in government accounts. Everyone in [low income districts] Neukölln, Wedding or Marzahn who depends on effective social and youth services, on efficient schools and kindergartens has been hit. People are victims of a screw-up without parallel. And that’s anything but funny.