Why is Berlin Brandenburg Airport Taking 23 Years to Build?

Berlin Brandenburg airport – the ‘new airport’ – was supposed to open in 2012. Now they’re saying 2020. The new terminal has just been sitting there, waiting, for 9 years. So has the rail station and the airport hotel.

At the time a fire official determined that Berlin Brandenburg airport automated fire doors weren’t functioning properly. That should have been a relatively quick issue to address, but the project has spiraled out of control since then — and it was already 3-5 years late.

Redesign of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport Got Out of Control

The punch list for Berlin Brandenburg airport ballooned to 550,000 items. The original $2.6 billion project is now projected to cost $8.25 billion. The BBC identifies poor planning as the culprit:

  • Not enough retail in the original design. Airports love retail for generating revenue, taking in not just least payments but a cut of sales. It seems unlikely, however, that the increased revenue stream redesigning for shopping will recoup the costs to… redesign for shopping.

  • Berlin Brandenburg airport was designed to accommodate Airbus A380s but not spartan low cost carriers, and that’s since been shifted.

  • It was determined that Berlin Brandenburg airport needed to be bigger, to accommodate twice as many passengers as originally planned.

berlin brandenburg airport check-in desks
Credit, Muns, via Wikimedia Commons

Local Politicians Tried to Manage the Project Themselves

But why did German planners get these things wrong, and go back to spend so much more money? Aviation Policy News says the project actually went bad in the late 90s.

The government had planned for the conversion of the old East Berlin Schoenefeld airport to be done privately. Requests for proposal went out in 1997, twenty two years ago. In 1998 a winner was announced, but litigation held up the project for two years until both finalists agreed to work together.

  • The companies would put up $290 million up front
  • They’d finance $1.7 billion in construction costs
  • The local government would cover $600 million

The government walked away from the deal in 2003, declaring it “not good enough” and they decided to go it alone. At this point opening of the airport was pushed back from 2007 to 2009.

The government handed out “30 to 40 contracts to smaller companies” instead of hiring an experience design build firm committing to deliver on a budget. Costs have more than tripled, and at best we’ll now see the airport next year.

As Aviation Policy News‘s Robert Poole concludes,

Political hubris led to cancelling a nearly-finalized agreement under which private investors with airport experience would have made sensible decisions about terminal size, changing trends in airline service, and the importance of revenue from extensive retail (as was already very evident from BAA’s huge retail expansion at Heathrow and Gatwick). And the investors—not German taxpayers—would have taken on the risks of cost overruns and schedule delays.

Credit: Muns, via Wikimedia Commons

Berlin Brandenburg is Now a Ghost Airport

In the meantime the train station runs one ghost train a day “to keep the air moving.” The airport hotel has had staff for years “forlornly dusting rooms and turning on taps to keep the water supply moving.”

Baggage carousels run each day to prevent them from seizing up. Departure and arrival boards consume energy, showing flights from other airports. Some of the screens have already worn out and been replaced.

In 1989 David Hasselhof stood atop the Berlin Wall belting out “Looking for Freedom.” Less than a year later East Germans were finally free. 31 years later East Berlin’s old airport may finally be freed as the new Berlin Brandenburg airport but is a costly reminder of East German-style planning. That’s a lesson that New York could stand to learn, too.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why is [ ] a mess? The answer is always government. Always, and every time. Airports like all things should be built and managed privately, and not by unaccountable and self-serving “civil-servants.” See also, NYNJ Port Authority.

  2. Answer: ridiculous bureaucracy with minute specifications that help no one. We all admit that the airport was not built properly and there have been mess ups with both design and implementation by the various contractors. However the airport is safe and could have opened 10 years ago. But bureaucrats and politicians have prevented it from opening because of draconian demands that the entire place be rewired and its been back and forth for 5 years because of a fire smoke ventilation system tests. The fire smoke ventilation system is ridiculous as the airport is built with non combustible materials and the builders said they would provide 300 fire fighters and fire spotters within the terminal buildings to mitigate a small deficiency in the smoke removal system. It’s kafkaesque.

  3. How do you know it’s going to be 23 years?

    This Airport (or at least that Terminal) will never open. Some projects can’t be saved. Doesn’t matter if it’s software or construction.

  4. @Mak, tell the people that Boeing killed how only the government can mess things up
    And explain it to me while you drive on the national highway system, which the government built

  5. Oh, and make sure you don’t use the internet, because the government built that too

  6. @Farnorthtrader you have fallen for the convenient lie about the internet. The modern, commercial internet happened when the government got out of the way.

  7. @farnorth, the interstate system was built a couple of generations ago now. That matters. It is today’s regulatory environment, not that of the 50s, that makes it impossible to get big things done. When was the last important new airport opened in the U.S.?
    How is that CA high speed train coming along?

    Your point about Boeing is valid. It is not only the government that messes up.

  8. Are you having a stroke? Who proofreads/edits these posts?!

    “Berlin Brandenburg airport was designed to accommodate Airbus A380s but not spartan lost cost carriers, and that’s since been shiftede.”

  9. As absolutely awful as the Tegal airport is, I have to say, for international arrivals to be out of immigration and customs in minutes from landing….that’s saying something! I find it entertaining that the often perfection-minded Germans have done this. And I do mean NO disrespect. My best friend is German and I pick at him constantly over this.

    This really is amazing though. Spain has a similar situation don’t they?

  10. This is incredible; since much of the design could have learned from Dusseldorf (same contractors in many cases); where the over-engineered ‘air train’ (monorail) works; but isn’t simplistic. However the airport itself is efficient and works. And YES, the old Tegel is miserable but easy to arrive at, and confusing for international departures until one learns it (Delta seasonal flights and no SkyClub of course; but ultimately found the Air France lounge). Good article and perhaps notable that failure of Air Berlin might have been avoided if not for the delay of BER. (They had already moved equipment and then Ethiad bailed-them out; and you know the rest of the story..). BER will be a major hub and I suspect helps end the relative bargain pricing of everything in Berlin relative to most big cities.

  11. Poor Berlin! 30 years ago while the Berlin Wall still existed Tegel was an amusing little airport. These days it’s barely tolerable whereas Schoenefeld is utter rot and unbearable. Closing Tempelhof was a stupid decision but the Berlin government is what it is.

    Now they’re stuck with this monstrosity that may well never ever open.

  12. @ Gary Left. Regarding Mr. Doyle . . . Good answer and he is being paid exactly his worth.

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