Thu, Apr 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Germans embarrassed by failure of new Berlin airport project

The Willy Brandt International Airport is one of a string of big-ticket projects hit by cost overruns and delays that undermine the nation’s fabled engineering skills

By Kirsten Grieshaber  /  AP, BERLIN

Rabbits scamper over quiet runways. Only the call of a crow disturbs the silence around a gleaming, empty terminal that should be humming with the din of thousands of passengers.

Willy Brandt International Airport, named for Germany’s famed Cold War leader, was supposed to have been up and running in late 2011, a sign of Berlin’s transformation from Cold War confrontation line to world class capital of Europe’s economic powerhouse. Instead it has become a symbol of how, even for this technological titan, things can go horribly wrong.

After four publicly announced delays, officials acknowledged the airport will not be ready by the latest target: October this year. To spare themselves further embarrassment, officials have refused to set a new opening date.

The saga of Berlin’s new airport has turned into a national joke and a source of humiliation for a people renowned for being on time. Yet it is just the highest profile in a string of big-ticket projects — including a concert hall in Hamburg, railway tunnels in Munich and Leipzig, a subway line in Cologne and a Stuttgart underground train station — that have been plagued by huge cost overruns and delays.

The airport fiasco presents a staggering picture of incompetence. German media have tracked down a list of tens of thousands of technical problems.

Among them: Officials cannot even figure out how to turn the lights off. Thousands of light bulbs illuminate the gigantic main terminal and unused parking lots around the clock, a massive energy and cost drain that appears to be the result of a computer system that is so sophisticated it is almost impossible to operate.

EMPTY TRAINS

Every day, an empty commuter train rolls to the unfinished airport over an 8km-long stretch to keep the newly laid tracks from getting rusty, another example of gross inefficiency.

Meanwhile, hundreds of freshly planted trees had to be chopped down because a company delivered the wrong type of linden trees; several escalators need to be rebuilt because they were too short and dozen of tiles were already broken before a single airport passenger ever stepped on them.

The airport itself points to problems with the fire safety system as the immediate cause of the delays: The fire safety system incorporates some 75,000 sprinklers, but computer programming glitches mean it is not clear whether all of these sprinklers would spray enough water during a fire. And the system’s underground vent system, designed to suck away smoke, is not working. Here, again, technology is getting in the way: It is so advanced that technicians cannot figure out what is wrong with it.

Critics say that the difficulties with handling today’s complex technology have been compounded by hasty, negligent work due to the intense time pressures. Underlying these problems appears to be a culture of political dishonesty.

“Many politicians want prestigious large-scale projects to be inseparably connected with their names,” said Sebastian Panknin, a financial expert with the Taxpayer’s Association Germany. “To get these expensive projects started, they artificially calculate down the real costs to get permission from parliament or other committees in charge.”

In addition to that, politicians at the city, state and federal levels then often come with extra demands once construction is underway, which leads to expensive modifications.

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