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Germany's construction record teeters over airport 'farce'

Germans may be quick to accuse other nations of incompetence when it comes to major projects but attempts to complete their own airport have been farcical. David Crossland reports from Berlin
The new Berlin Brandenburg airport Willy Brandt (BER) behind a construction site fence with a warning sign, in Schoenefeld. Earmarked to open in 2011, it is unlikely to open until 2015 or later.
The new Berlin Brandenburg airport Willy Brandt (BER) behind a construction site fence with a warning sign, in Schoenefeld. Earmarked to open in 2011, it is unlikely to open until 2015 or later.

BERLIN // When it comes to construction, it is hard to beat the Germans. Or so one might think.

The country that pioneered modern industrial design in the 1920s is fiercely proud of its reputation for quality engineering that has won it countless contracts to erect factories, bridges and airports around the world. Five stadiums planned for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were designed by architect Albert Speer, the son of Adolf Hitler's chief architect of the same name.

Brimming with self-confidence, Germans tend to be quick to accuse other nations of incompetence when it comes to major projects.

Commentators here such as Germany's leading news magazine, Der Speigel, predicted wrongly that London's infrastructure would not be able to copy with the 2012 Olympics, and many were astonished when Greece managed to get all its stadiums ready in time for the 2004 Olympics.

So Germany's farcical attempts to complete a needed new airport for its capital have come as a surprise. The opening of BER Berlin Brandenburg Airport, once hailed by its managing firm as "Europe's most modern airport", has been delayed not once or twice but four times, due to construction faults so serious that part of the terminal may have to be torn down before a single plane has taken off.

Even worse, it is starting to look like a trend. Recent landmark construction projects ranging from a futuristic concert hall in Hamburg to an underground train station in Stuttgart have been dogged by massive delays and cost overruns.

A toxic mix of red tape, political incompetence and litigious residents threatens to undermine Germany's reputation for reliability and efficiency, say business leaders.

"The events in Berlin are cleary a blow to our good image," the VDE Electrical Engineering Association told a German newspaper earlier this week.

"The Berlin project is a national embarrassment. The capital city has become the laughing stock of the world," the tabloid Bild commented last week, a day after the city was told that the airport would not be finished by the October 27 target date.

Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who wanted the airport to be his political legacy, has rejected calls to resign, but he admitted a modicum of guilt by stepping down as chairman of the airport company's supervisory board.

"This is starting to make our construction industry look bad," Heiko Stiepelmann, managing director of the Federation of the German Construction Industry, told The National. He quickly added: "It's got nothing to do with any lack of engineering skill in Germany."

Construction of BER started in 2006. The airport, meant to replace the two ageing, overcrowded Cold War-era western and eastern hubs of Tegel and Schönefeld, was first due to go into operation in 2011, then in June 2012, then in spring of this year and then in October.

No one is venturing to set a new date, but engineers in charge of the project have said it will not be until next year. Some outside experts say it may not be until 2015 or later.

The airport's technology chief, Horst Amann, hastily appointed last August to get the project back on track, this week described the faults he had discovered in recent months as "grave, almost atrocious".

The main problem is the fire safety system. Planners, poorly supervised by regional politicians, ignored legal requirements for an automatic ventilation system to pump smoke out of the terminal and draw in fresh air in a blaze. Major rebuilding work will be needed to fix that.

But experts checking the building have also found hundreds of other faults, the least of which are cracks in the floor tiles. There are problems with the airport's local area network that steers everything from the check-in system to the runway lights, and experts have warned that the airport doesn't have enough check-in counters or baggage claim belts to cope at peak times.

The cost has more than doubled to US$4.3 billion (Dh1.57bn) from the original estimate, and will now increase by hundreds of millions more.

One might dismiss the debacle as a one-off occurrence, possibly explained by the sluggish local government of the cash-strapped capital.

But other major construction projects across Germany are beset by similar delays. The port city of Hamburg has not finished its grand Elbphilharmonie concert hall, originally due to open in 2010, because of arguments over costs and safety concerns. It is not expected to be completed before 2017 - at the earliest.

Stuttgart, home to Daimler, has run into massive public opposition to an ambitious project to build a new underground rail station. The construction of a city tunnel for Leipzig, the rebuilding of a baroque royal palace in Berlin and even the new headquarters of the BND intelligence agency in Berlin have been plagued by problems.

"We're getting a bit worried that the failure of some big projects could diminish our international market opportunities," said Mr Stiepelmann. "We're still among the world's leaders in terms of the export of engineering and construction services. What's been happening doesn't really have anything to do with the companies but with the political management of these projects."

He said Germany is too reluctant to adopt public-private partnership in big contracts, a concept that has proved successful in many other countries. "The prevailing opinion here is that the government should be in charge of big projects," said Mr Stiepelmann. And the financial crisis has even boosted faith in the state".

Also, politicians and bureaucrats tended to insist on being charge of public works even though they had insufficient know-how to get the job done. Reports said the supervisory board of the airport project, dominated by politicians, had paid more attention to the elegant walnut veneer wall cladding and limestone tile flooring than to fire safety.

Another drawback to German project management is that it is too specialised, with insufficient coordination between designers and builders, said Mr Stiepelmann.

A further problem is the power of local campaigners to delay necessary work.

"It takes years of legal battles before the first bulldozer is fired up. Often, legal proceedings go right up to the highest administrative court before all the objections have been cleared aside - that's typically German," he said.

Construction work is regularly delayed for years by lawsuits brought by environmentalists worried over the effect of the project on rare bats, frogs or butterflies. "Not in my back yard" campaigners are also blocking the erection of new power lines and electricity storage plants need for Germany's planned switch to renewable energy generation - one of Chancellor Angela Merkel's pet projects.

"We can do the job, but we have to rethink how these projects are organised in Germany," said Mr Stiepelmann. "I hope the politicians will learn their lesson from all this."


Updated: January 14, 2013 04:00 AM

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