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Berlin's airport project delays shame Germans

Monday - 4/8/2013, 9:32am  ET

In this March 14, 2013 photo, two men walk to the main terminal of the new Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BER) named Willy-Brandt-Flughafen in Schoenefeld near Berlin. 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 won't be ready by the latest target: October 2013. To spare themselves further embarrassment, officials have refused to set a new opening date. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

KIRSTEN GRIESHABER
Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) -- 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 won't be ready by the latest target: October 2013. 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 can't 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's so sophisticated it's almost impossible to operate.

Every day, an empty commuter train rolls to the unfinished airport over an eight-kilometer-long (five-mile) 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's 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, isn't working. Here, again, technology's getting in the way: It's so advanced that technicians can't figure out what's 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. In the case of the Berlin airport, said Pankin, there were about 300 ad hoc change requests by politicians which created an explosion of costs and several delays -- among them a last-minute wish to expand the terminal to include a shopping mall.

"The airport is a classic example of the incompetence of our politicians," said Sven Fandrich, a 28-year-old Berliner who works for an insurance company. "We've seen this happen with many big infrastructure projects in Germany. Nobody feels responsible. The politicians are more concerned about winning the next elections than devoting their service to the people."

Hamburg's concert hall was to have opened by 2010. Instead it's nowhere near complete and costs have more than doubled to 575 million euros. It's now due to open in 2016.

Construction on Cologne's North-South subway line began in 2004. After cost overruns and a collapse that killed two people in 2009, officials say the entire line may not be open until 2019. Costs have soared from 780 million to 1.08 billion euros.

In Leipzig, the city tunnel for commuter trains was expected to open in 2009. Construction is still not finished, and costs have jumped from 572 million to 960 million euros.

Of all the bungled projects, the Berlin airport is the biggest embarrassment.

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