Touring a stagnant airport in usually-efficient Germany
Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport was due to open in 2011 but has been plagued with construction problems — and curious Germans take tours to see where their tax money is going.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
BERLIN — In the early days of aviation, it was common for people to visit airports simply to stand on observation decks and watch the planes come and go. This city’s new airport is attracting tourists for the opposite reason: a conspicuous lack of passengers and planes after a series of delays and bungles that have driven its cost billions of dollars over budget and pushed its opening back indefinitely.
Part of the appeal seems to be the chance to gawk at evidence that Germany — practically synonymous with precision and efficiency — could fail in such spectacular fashion.
Scheduled to open in November 2011, Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport began offering public tours of the construction site after ground was broken in 2006. Since then, about 1 million people have signed up, said Ralf Kunkel, an airport spokesman.
And business seems to have picked up even more as the problems have mounted. One budget travel agency began offering vacation packages last spring — two nights in a nearby hotel and a trip to the beleaguered airport in a double-decker tour bus.
One recent Sunday afternoon, 16 sightseers and their guide, Elisa Naundorf, a lively young woman in tall black boots and a red-and-white parka, made their way to the airport’s Infotower, a 105-foot-tall triangular structure with an observation deck above and a museum and gift shop below.
Before ascending the tower’s 171 steps, tourgoers could buy beach balls and baseball caps, umbrellas and USB sticks, all emblazoned with the airport logo. From one shelf, a plush blue ant wearing a miniature hard hat and overalls seemed to look on as visitors handed over $13.50 for the tour.
History is an intrinsic part of Berlin’s backdrop, and more than a few sights here reflect its turbulent past. For some, the airport tour offered a refreshing change of scenery from the more weighty tributes to victims of Nazi persecution or monuments to the Red Army in the city’s central quarters.
“I had seen enough memorials,” said Marlis Lippold, 48, of Osnabrück, in western Germany, who was spending the weekend in Berlin with friends. “I wanted to see why they’re still not finished out here.”
From the lofty observation deck, one could see large tarps in the shape of X’s unfurled over an inactive runway, empty parking lots and four decommissioned jets, their engines wrapped in protective yellow covers, parked in front of a hangar.
Amid the lack of progress, tourgoers learn, the airport’s builders and planners have sought ways to prevent the infrastructure from atrophying.
Every weekday at 10:26 a.m., for instance, the railway company Deutsche Bahn sends empty subway trains through a tunnel leading out to the airport. The lonely journeys keep air in the tunnel moving so the tracks do not rust.
It is anecdotes like this, often lampooned in the German media, that have roused the curiosity of the many people eager to see how things are coming along, or how they are not.
Germans are also curious to see how their tax money is being spent, after reports that the empty airport consumes more electricity each day than the city’s still-functional Tegel Airport, with its 400-plus flights a day, and that cleaning costs for the empty main terminal are $200,000 a month.
“I was here a year ago, and I wanted to see if anything had changed,” said Felix Ritter, 20, a law student from Berlin. “It has been so mismanaged. What a waste of money.”
The project may wind up costing upward of $5.8 billion — $1.6 billion more than originally planned — according to Kunkel, the airport spokesman. The joint ownership between the states of Berlin and Brandenburg and the federal government means that German taxpayers will foot the bill for any cost overruns.
In a damage-control effort, Hartmut Mehdorn, the head of the company charged with building the airport, last year ordered that the construction site be tidied up. Fences were dismantled, and piles of building equipment were removed. Since then, at least superficially, the airport has given an impression of being ready for business.
On the recent tour, participants wanted to know why the hundreds of problems delaying the opening — not the least of which is a defective fire safety system that courses through the entire building — were not recognized sooner and who was ultimately responsible for the mismanagement. The most pressing question, however, was about when the airport would finally open.
While the airport is the largest construction project languishing in Germany, it is not the only major one. The Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg will be finished six years later than expected and cost about $700 million more while the underground expansion of Stuttgart’s main train station is expected to be finished in 2021, 11 years late, and cost as much as $2 billion extra.
As the bus approached the main terminal along Melli-Beese-Ring, named after the first German woman to receive a pilot’s license, passengers whipped out their cellphones to snap pictures of the towering steel, glass and concrete structure. At 10,000 tons, the structure’s roof weighs about the same as the Eiffel Tower, according to Naundorf, the tour guide.
Through the building’s glass facade, visitors could see check-in counters of polished nutwood and computer screens wrapped in plastic. Clusters of stanchions stood near orange construction cones. Bored-looking security guards in bright yellow vests watched the main entrance.
The bus crept past the Steigenberger Hotel, across from the airport’s main terminal, another victim of the delays. For months, cleaning crews have gone from room to room, turning on faucets and opening windows to keep the hotel fresh for when the first guest finally arrives.
But when that will be remains unclear. The original, 2011 target has been pushed back four times — the last time indefinitely — because of a number of budgetary and technical problems.
Last year, the airport’s managers compiled a to-do list of hundreds of items that must be checked off before the airport can open.
Mehdorn, the head of the building company, has said that although an official opening date remains uncertain, he hopes to be done with construction and any additional repairs by the end of this year. But tourgoers had their doubts.
“I’m generally an optimistic person,” said Ritter, the law student, “just not when it comes to this airport.”