How To Fuck Up An Airport
Millions over budget and years overdue, Berlin's new BER airport is a disaster
Photos by Gerrit Köhler / Illustration by John Rooney
BER is the international airport code for Berlin Brandenburg Airport. It has also become a signifier of failure, incompetence, corruption and Berlin’s general inability to get its shit together.
You can see BER if you fly through Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport. The glass-walled neo-modernist construction looks impressive but is far from finished. It has been under construction since 2008 and has blown through six opening dates, three general managers and two state leaders. Costs have ballooned from €630 million to €7.3 billion – and they’re still rising!
How did the capital city of efficient and frugal Germany manage to fuck up an airport so spectacularly? The project was plagued with hubris, miscalculation and mismanagement right from the start.
FUCK UP #1
BLAME RONALD REAGAN
The dream of building a mega airport in Berlin began in 1987, when US President Ronald Reagan gave his famous “tear down this wall” speech. In front of the Brandenburg Gate, he also uttered the fateful words: “We look to the day when West Berlin can become one of the chief aviation hubs in all central Europe.”
Not satisfied with having three small working airports – Schönefeld, Tegel and Tempelhof – Berlin’s leaders wanted a new mega airport with multiple runways working 24 hours to ensure Berlin was not just a destination, but a crossover point for transferring passengers.
But Germany didn’t need another international hub; it already had Frankfurt and Munich. Lufthansa has repeatedly rejected the idea of using Berlin as a transit hub. Yet BER’s design and financial planning were based on transit passengers, says Martin Delius, a former Berlin parliamentarian for the Pirate Party who headed an inquiry into BER. “Nobody criticised the idea of having a hub, except the airlines, and nobody listened to them. So the whole pre-planning and concept was driven by the hub idea, which is not really usable for the use case we now need.”
Planners then picked the worst possible location for the new airport. Seven sites were considered. The most feasible was Sperenberg, a former military airbase 40km south of the city with no neighbours and plenty of room to expand. Schönefeld was last on the list because of size and noise restrictions. It was selected anyway because it sits on the border of Berlin and Brandenburg, and both states wanted a share of the airport’s envisaged riches.
FUCK UP #2
BUILD YOUR OWN AIRPORT
Most airports today are built by professional construction companies. BER is being built by a government-owned entity with no experience in construction: Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg, or FBB. That wasn’t the original plan. One company, Hochtief, offered to build BER for just over €1 billion. But in 2003, Berlin’s then-mayor Klaus Wowereit scrapped the privatisation plan in a misguided attempt to cut costs. Wowereit, who had declared that his SPD-led government would “save until it squeals”, believed FBB could do the job for just €630 million. Hochtief went on to build Athens international Airport on budget within four years.
The man hired to design BER was Meinhard von Gerkan, the starchitect of Berlin whose previous projects include Hauptbahnhof railway station, Tempodrom concert hall, and Tegel Airport, the much-loved hexagonal terminal built in 1965. Gerkan (now 82 years old) is mad as hell about the “mallification” of airports.
“Most passengers have no desire to buy anything,” Gerkan wrote in 2013. “Why should I have to drag around two bottles of overpriced whiskey in a plastic bag like a beggar? Anyone who has endured the cacophony of the Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Zurich or London airport labyrinths will have lost the joy of flying.”
He designed BER to have as few shops as possible – great for anti-consumption utopians, terrible for the accountants. Gerkan’s mall-free BER was already under construction when the airport bosses realised something was missing. “They calculated the revenue, they calculated the time, and they found out they needed a larger shopping space,” says Delius. “They changed all that structure at a time when the main structure was already built.” Post-construction, FBB desperately doubled the number of shops in the terminal, creating a mess that is still being cleaned up today.
FUCK UP #3
CHANGE THE RECIPE WHILE BAKING
BER was originally designed to handle 22 million passengers annually. By 2008, when construction started, the city’s existing airports were already processing that number, meaning the new airport would be at capacity on opening day. This inadequacy was realised too late. Nine months after construction had begun, the FBB ordered a redesign to increase the floorplan by almost 65 per cent.
Builders were hit with a relentless stream of alterations. Wowereit made a personal request during a FBB board meeting to add double-level boarding gates to welcome the giant Airbus A380 aircraft. Yet no airline had expressed an interest in flying A380s to Berlin – rather, the double-deck airliners were destined for Frankfurt and Munich. Today, A380s are a commercial failure, and some are being scrapped for parts. There’s a good chance BER’s costly and disruptive A380 gates will never be used.
Another major redesign was required in 2010 when new EU security regulations came into effect. German federal police requested a third more floor space for larger scanning equipment in a building where space was already tight. The architects had to squeeze in a new mezzanine floor, which messed with all of the internal technical plans. This shouldn’t have been a surprise: the regulations were known about since 2008.
BER’s managers and political masters treated the under-construction airport as if it were made from plasticine, ordering almost 500 change requests on the fly. Yet they wanted to stick to the planned opening date of June 3, 2012. Contractors working on fixed-price agreements switched to charging hourly rates to finish the job – a recipe for overspending. As Delius put it: “When you don’t have a plan, you cannot set a certain price tag.”
Despite all the changes, the FBB insisted that the airport could open on time. A giant opening party was planned, with 10,000 guests invited, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. More than 600 trucks from across Europe were hired to relocate equipment from destined-to-close Tegel Airport. Public television channel RBB cleared the schedule to present 24-hour coverage of the event. Passengers were issued boarding cards bearing the new airport code. Luckily they never had to land there – the multi-billion-euro terminal was a giant potential firetrap.
FUCK UP #4
USE HUMANS AS LIVING FIRE ALARMS
Each time the airport bosses changed the plans, they messed with the fire safety systems. The smoke extraction ducts, sprinklers and emergency communication cabling had been designed for a much smaller building, and couldn’t be easily scaled up.
Multiple external auditors reviewed the building’s safety and found a litany of problems. Just weeks before the planned opening, the Brandenburg state controller’s office concluded that BER was just 56.2 per cent service-ready. There were sporadic power failures, inoperative escalators and lifts, an unstable LAN network, and unusable car-parking towers. Most critically, many of the fire alarms, emergency doors and communication links to the airport fire station were not working.
FBB’s CEO Rainer Schwarz proposed a solution known internally as the “human-machine interface”. The plan was to hire 800 workers to stand guard near fire doors, armed with mobile phones to alert each other in the event of an emergency. Wowereit and the airport’s supervisory board approved the plan.
It was up to one man to tell them they were all insane. Stephan Loge is administrator of the Dahme-Spreewald district, in which BER is located. It’s his job to approve building permits. Weeks before the planned opening party, Loge met the FBB bosses and told them their airport was unsafe for use. “It was understood that they wanted to use people as living fire alarms,” Loge recalls. “My response was: colleagues, do you really want to have hundreds of young students in orange vests sitting on camping stools, with a lunchbox and thermos working late shifts? And when something unfortunate happens, they have to call out; ‘Max, close the door, there’s a fire over here!’” Loge refused to sign the safety certificate. The opening party was cancelled.
FUCK UP #5
CREATE A CESSPOOL OF CORRUPTION
BER has been built twice: the first time incorrectly, the second time incompletely. After the grand cancellation of 2012, auditors called in to assess the problems found more than 150,000 mistakes. The problems were so extensive that the building had to be stripped to its core. ‘Marco’, an anonymous worker, explained: “We had to renovate a new building, this was the absurd thing. As everybody in the sector knows, reconstruction or renovation is always more difficult, and more expensive.”
Workers became despondent after spending months trying to make progress, with few results. Career-minded professionals fled the project, fearing it would tarnish their reputation. Mostly inexperienced or near-retirement workers remained. “If you wanted to do nothing, it was relatively easy. It was a relaxed working environment, with no fear of control,” says Marco.
Some workers began stealing material such as copper and selling it offsite. That was petty crime compared to what others were up to. BER’s former technical manager, Joachim Großmann, solicited a bribe worth half a million euro from a company seeking a contract. He was caught and fined €200,000. Another manager known as Francis G collected €150,000 in cash in a parking lot from a company hoping to have its bills paid quickly. He was sentenced to almost four years in prison.
One whistleblower who informed the authorities about corruption fell ill. Bild newspaper reported that doctors believed a poisonous substance was added to his coffee at work.
FUCK UP #6
PUNISH NO ONE
Despite the catastrophic problems at BER, there have been no senior figures held to account. Former CEO Rainer Schwarz, who was in charge during the worst failures, was fired in 2013. But the FBB bungled the process and Schwarz successfully sued the company for wrongful termination of his contract. He was awarded more than €1 million in compensation, and is now CEO of Münster Osnabrück Airport.
Another former manager, Manfred Körtgen, was busy writing a PhD thesis while simultaneously overseeing the installation of the problem-riddled technical systems. He was fired in 2012 and left with a payout of €193,000 – as well as his doctorate.
The politicians who failed to control the airport company have also been let off the hook. None more so than Wowereit, who resigned as mayor in 2014 on his own terms instead of facing another election. Despite being head of the FBB’s supervisory board, Wowereit continues to insist he was not to blame. “The supervisory board doesn’t run the business, and they don’t tighten the screws themselves either,” Wowereit said on public TV in 2017. Yet multiple warnings were sent to Wowereit’s office about serious problems prior to the 2012 cancellation. And Wowereit ordered some of the changes that pushed the project off track.
FUCK UP #7
KEEP ON DIGGING
Work at BER continues, and its current manager insists it can open in October 2020. The project keeps getting bailed out, mostly by the German federal and state governments, but also by the European Investment Bank, which has poured in over a billion euro. Think of that next time you hear Germans complaining about lazy Greeks taking European money.
One critic believes that BER can never open. Dieter Faulenbach da Costa is an airport planner who previously worked at BER. He says the airport will not be able to handle its stated passenger capacity and has multiple internal design flaws, such as escalators ending meters from security gates, creating inevitable human pile-ups.
Rather than trying to polish a turd, Faulenbach da Costa says BER should be mothballed and new terminals constructed elsewhere. “I am convinced that this airport can’t open,” Faulenbach da Costa says. “They should all become Catholics, put up pictures of saints and pray for a miracle. Then it might work.”
Each month brings new reports of fresh failures. Plans are already being drawn to build a new terminal to double BER’s capacity, creating plenty of opportunity for further calamities.
Although you can’t fly there, you can already visit BER. There are public tours inside the foyer each Thursday and bicycle tours around the outside on Sundays in summer. It’s an imposing building, with huge glass walls, dark wood panelling and marble flooring. Yet impressive architecture won’t save BER from being forever known as Berlin’s biggest ever fuck-up.