Why Isn't Berlin's New Airport Open Yet?
PHOTO: An empty Brandenburg Airport. (photo courtesy of Berlin-Airport.de)
Since 2011, Berlin, Germany has been struggling to open a new, state-of-the-art airport, designed to handle 27 million passengers annually. Named Brandenburg Airport, the facility, which was originally scheduled to open in 2011, has faced delays caused by mismanagement, cost overruns, corruption and design flaws.
November, 2011 was when Brandenburg was originally scheduled to open — Berlin’s first new airport since 1948. That date was then pushed to June, 2012. The airport authority put all systems through their paces, from the baggage carousels to the check-in kiosks and even the runways. During the evaluation process, the biggest and most insurmountable problem was discovered — the smoke ventilation and fire suppression system, which has been its primary cause for delay.
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According to the committee overseeing construction of the airport, the tests of the smoke ventilation system only covered 175 out of 188 possible scenarios. Perhaps you can chalk it up to perfectionism in German engineering, but Brandenburg is far from perfect. It will take several weeks to even draw up testing plans for the remaining scenarios, followed by testing and any changes that need to be made. Currently the new deadline to open the airport in “the second half of 2017.” Fifteen months have been set aside for the myriad of required testing.
The fire protection system was of particular importance, because of a 1996 fire that spanned a terminal in Dusseldorf, killing 17 people. According to Bloomberg, the system at Brandenburg went “haywire” during a simulated fire test, and some alarms failed to activate. Sensors indicated a fire in the wrong part of the terminal. Airport officials from the Operational Readiness and Airport Transfer (ORAT) team blamed the issue on the 55 miles of wiring. Upon inspection, wires were discovered alongside high voltage wires and heating cables — which is a fire hazard in and of itself. In addition, the smoke ventilation system failed to perform its job sufficiently.
They came up with a solution to open the airport on time in 2012: Fire spotters. Airport officials wanted to place 800 people throughout the terminal, sitting on stools wearing orange vests and armed with cell phones, who were charged with calling in a fire in the event that they actually saw one or smelled smoke.
As the airport prepared to throw open its doors with great fanfare in 2012, the mayor sent out 3,000 invitations to opening festivities. It was May 8, 2012 when officials — including Berlin’s mayor — announced the airport would not open as scheduled. And it still hasn’t, nearly four years later. Sixteen million euros are being spent per month just to keep the facility from falling into disrepair. Brandenburg’s costs were originally estimated at $2.6 billion but have swollen to over $6.6 billion.
Construction is scheduled to finally be complete by the middle of this year, followed by another round of testing by ORAT. Even if all goes according to plan, Brandenburg still won’t open until the fall of 2017. Many throughout Germany see the airport as a source of embarrassment to Germany’s renowned order, efficiency and engineering.
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Berlin’s old primary airport, Tempelhof, was shuttered to commercial flights on Oct. 30, 2008 after a referendum failed to keep it open. It has since been turned into a park and a shelter for the homeless. Brandenburg is intended to replace Cold War-era hub airports for Berliners, but because of the delays, upgrades have been necessary at nearby airports Tegel and Schoenefeld, causing even further financial hemorrhaging.
More by Paul Thompson
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