A project initially slated for completion in 2011, work at Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport is still ongoing in 2020 with costs ballooning from $2.8bn to $8bn.
Work on Berlin’s new airport has become so infamous that it features as narrative device in a novel by Austrian author Robert Menasse.
In the book titled ‘The Capital’ (Die Hauptstadt), Menasse asks how a fictional new European capital can be built when one of the EU’s richest members struggles to even build an airport for its capital.
Officials behind the Willy Brandt airport have been mocked in the German media since missing its initial opening date of 2011. The reason given then was to make sure fire safety infrastructure was in place.
Its subsequent near decade long delay belies the popular stereotypes of German punctuality and efficiency.
Nevertheless its fourth project manager, Luetke Daldrup, has assured the country’s media that the site will open and will be functional in 2020, albeit nine years later and at $8.3bn dollars, more than $6bn over budget.
To put the length of time taken to complete the project into perspective, it spans almost the entirety of Angela Merkel’s time as chancellor.
So just why has it taken so long to finish?
According to airport officials, the reasons seem to revolve around safety issues and bureaucratic road blocks.
Speaking to the Swiss media outlet, New Zurich Times, Luetke Daldrup said that construction regulations in Germany complicated the process.
“The number of building regulations has quadrupled in the last 20 years,” he said, adding: “They (German authorities) only want the best for every area, in fire protection, in impact sound absorption, in energy efficiency, in accessibility, in environmental protections, etc.”
But debate still revolves around how much of the delay was avoidable.
According to Professor Patrick Schwerdtner, an expert in construction at Braunschweig Technical University, the culture among officials and the general population bears responsibility.
“Compared to the rest of Europe, the German population is inclined to (bureaucratic) conflicts,” he told TRT World.
Schwerdtner raised the example of the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, an 18km-long underwater tunnel connecting Denmark’s Lolland island to Germany’s northern Schleswig-Holstein. As things stand, the project is not due to be completed until 2028.
“On the German side there were 12,600 objections to the project, on the Danish side only a few dozen with mostly constructive proposals,” Schwerdtner said.
“There were as many as 133,000 objections to (Willy Brandt airport) in the planning phase.
“When major projects take longer and longer, this is often due to the negative attitude of the population.”
Civil objections make up just one side of the story, according to Schwerdtner. The other is due to actual management techniques and German public procurement laws.
The latter requires that projects require separate approvals for their planning and execution stages. Furthermore, a project the size of Willy Brandt is divided into many sub-projects, which can only commence once a reliant project is completed.
In the case of Willy Brandt there were already 45 such sub-projects in 2009.
Such arrangements create a bureaucratic nightmare for the construction companies and project managers.
Although minor, practical mistakes also contributed to the delays.
One such example was offered by Daldrup, who gave the example of how the use of plastic dowels fell foul of German building law, which only sanctions the use of metal dowels. Once the mistake was discovered, each one had to be found and replaced.
Given the scale of the delays, German authorities have at times suspected corruption.
In Jochen Grossmann, who was in charge of overseeing smoke extraction systems at the airport, was suspended for taking bribes. He later received a one year suspended sentence.
Will it live up to expectations?
When finished, Willy Brandt is expected to host 38 million passengers on opening and 58 million passengers eventually, making the need for Berlin’s two other airports redundant, but there are experts who have thrown cold water over the claim.
Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, a German airport planner who has worked on the construction of 44 other airports, told TRT World it was very likely that the airport when eventually finished would not live up to those estimates.
He explained that the airport will only have capacity for 28 million passengers per year, and that as a result, one of Berlin’s two existing airports, will have to continue its operations.
According to Willy Brandt’s Daldrup, these problems could have been avoided had there been proper plans in place before the start of the project.
"When you start building, you shouldn't change anything anymore.”