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    Uber, WeWork, Snap – all these companies burn a lot of cash while planning growth – how planning for a German airport ran amok

    February 2019

    Germany, German efficiency, German precision, German planning. Not too long ago “Made in Germany” was a brand itself. But how about a massive waste of money and a bungled project that’s 13 years behind schedule, nearly four times over its original budget of 2 billion Euros, and is costing German taxpayers – at least those who live in Berlin – 1 million Euro a day. Money, which the city of Berlin could have by far better utilized to grow for example their start-up scene to ensure innovation.

    The state of the planned Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) that was conceived just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of West and East Germany in early 1991. Fast forward 28 years and billions in funding, and the airport is still not finished – and BER may not get its first flights until late 2020 or 2021. Even now, officials are reluctant to say when the new airport – which was supposed to replace the current Tegel and Schoenefeld Airports – will begin operations. It’s not as if the building work isn’t completed. Dozens of gates are ready, but the operational screens are blank. BER has become a sad if expensive joke among local politicians from the city and the nearby state of Brandenburg.

    “Normally, prestigious projects such as the Berlin Brandenburg Airport are prepared carefully and executed according to plan“ once said Dr. Jens Hoslcher. He’s an economist and a specialist in German affairs, and heads the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at the University of Bournemouth who previously taught at Berlin University.

    BER airport beats all records not only in terms of the size of expenditures but also in terms of the length of its construction and constant delays of its planned use. Probably, with the exception of the Cologne Cathedral, the construction of which started in 1248 and finished in 1880. That’s a stinging indictment of the current state of affairs of BER.

    Initially the opening should have been in 2012 – it is now expected for 2021 – an unprecedented failure. Anything that could go wrong did. A faulty fire protection system has been mostly to blame. The system devised to be extremely complex. It envisaged that in the event of a fire, smoke would be pumped downwards, below the terminal’s structure, instead of upwards to the ceiling – as is the normal flow of air. According to Dr. Hoslcher, there were multiple other problems as well – ranging from faulty wiring, escalators that were too short and a roof that turned out to be twice as heavy as planned, causing serious structural concerns about the entire terminal building. Berlin city, state and federal planners predicted BER would cost 2 billion Euro. It’s now already 7.3 billion Euro, more than 5 billion Euro over budget and still more is needed to finish off the project and fix its defects before the first plane lands.

    For 15 Euro each, groups of 20 visitors can tour the project and that’s the only revenue it has raised so far despite being more than decade off its original initial completion of 2007. Legal disputes and a row over whether the project should be privatized or built by a government consortium pushed that date back to 2012. Since then, BER authorities have declined to say just exactly when it will open, with a list of supposedly firm opening dates falling by the wayside. And because the project ended up being run by local governments, it also became mired in local politics.

    In my opinion, one issue for the delay is that two states are involved, Berlin and Brandenburg – and to some extent the German government. This led to some political controversies including costs at all political levels, adding that it contributed to the more than 7 billion Euro sunk into the project already.

    So, what went so badly wrong for a showcase project that was meant to illustrate a united Germany and a city emerging from its Cold War Isolation? The answer is somewhat clear.

    There was never a central management installed to oversee it and properly monitor the project as a whole. This created an environment where no one knew what the real situation was anymore.

    But one man did, Daniel Abbou, a press spokesman for BER. He was fired in April 2016 for his rather candid assessment of the messed-up project in an interview. “Believe me, no politician, no airport director, and no one who isn’t dependent on medication, will give you any firm guarantees for this airport. They used to say mostly, no, everything will be fine. That’s bull. Admit it when something has screwed up. It’ll all come out anyway.”

    But despite the delays, the project remains badly needed.

    After the Berlin Wall came down the new Berlin has three airports, Tegel, Tempelhof and Schoenefeld. Tempelhof – in my opinion the nicest – being right in the centre of Berlin, closed. BER is next to Schoenefeld, the former airport for East Berlin, which is now in high demand because of cheap airlines. It is located 18 kilometers southeast of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg and border’s Berlin’s southern boundary. And right now, Schoenefeld is the smaller of the two airports and is a base for Ryanair, Easyjet and Germania. It had 12.9 million passengers pass through its doors, mostly serving holiday destinations and routes serviced by the budget carriers.

    Because Schoenefeld is next to the new BER, port of its infrastructure will also be incorporated into the new BER, and the airport is set to be decommissioned by 2023 – if indeed BER is open by then. The airport was built to Soviet style and is a reminder of Berlin’s divided post.

    What’s more, Tegel Airport, in Berlin’s northwest, was scheduled to close in 2012 – had the new delayed airport been on schedule. It’s not, and nearly 20 million passengers passed through Tegel’s unique hexagonal terminal building last year alone. Even now, there’s strong campaign to keep Tegel open. A campaign was launched to keep it open, adding that a non-binding referendum voted in favour of Tegel, and city officials are reconsidering its fate.

    However, the two other airport shareholders, the federal German government and the state of Brandenburg already declined any change of plans and confirmed the planned closure of Tegel.

    Personally, I love Tegel.