German efficiency and Berlin’s new airport

There is a German term for “German efficiency” – several in fact: deutsche Gründlichkeit, Effizienz, Fähigkeit, Leistungsfähigkeit, Tüchtigeit. German efficiency can be found gloriously in German doors and windows, in energy use (hall lights that only turn on if there’s motion; escalators that only start running when you step on them), in ecology (waterless urinals, low-flow toilets), in Bauhaus architecture (“less is more”), and in German manufacturing (think cars and giant turbines).

On the other hand, German efficiency can be very much overrated. The cliché can become mythical and frustratingly elusive. Germany’s often impenetrable bureaucracy is a case in point. Or Berlin’s new airport, where German efficiency has disappeared entirely and turned into raging incompetence.

We thus turn to the astounding failure to open Berlin’s new Berlin Brandenburg international airport on schedule. Bearing the symbol BER, the new airport was supposed to replace the German capital’s two outmoded airfields – Tegel (TXL) and Schönefeld (SXF) – on 3 June 2012. (Tempelhof closed back in 2008; it’s now a city park.) But the third day of June will pass without that happening. For now, Tegel and Schönefeld must remain in operation and BER will not open, a fact that was announced only three weeks before the scheduled grand opening.

Not only is the delay unbelievable, so are the lame excuses being given by Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and the airport management. (An incomplete automated fire safety system.) Also incredible is the fact that BER’s opening has been pushed back not by a few weeks or even a month or two. No, instead of opening on June 3 of this year, it was announced recently that the new Willy Brandt Airport will not open its doors until 17 March 2013. That is a delay of over nine months! Oops.

This stunning delay follows many others, but the earlier ones took place during the planning phase, not after years of construction and just weeks before a long-planned opening. Even for Berlin, this debacle is staggering. And it personally bugs me immensely for a simple reason: My wife and I were planning to land at Berlin Brandenburg Airport in July, allowing (I thought) for any possible delay in its scheduled June opening. Now, with this so-called “delay” of almost a year, we won’t even be able to take off from BER for our return flight. It simply boggles the mind.

I’m not the only one irritated by this bewildering example of German incompetence. For decades now, air travelers have put up with second-rate Berlin airports. Tegel in particular is bursting at the seams. It was designed in the 1960s and later modified to handle 9.5 million passengers, but over 15 million passengers passed through its gates in 2010. The first phase of BER alone is designed to handle 30 million air travelers. Berlin desperately needs a new airport to fit its post-reunification status as Germany’s capital. Willy Brandt Airport was supposed to solve that problem in June.

Air Berlin head Hartmut Mehdorn was also looking forward to BER’s opening – as the airline’s new major hub. He was furious about the delay. So were Lufthansa, EasyJet and all the other airlines currently serving Berlin via the city’s two overloaded, outdated existing airports. (Tegel’s Otto Lilienthal terminal leaves the impression of being smaller than most average city airports in the US.) Besides Frankfurt (FRA), Germany’s largest airport, many other German cities have better air service to more destinations than Berlin.

In an interview, commenting on the fact that he had not been informed in advance about the delay, Mehdorn told Der Spiegel: “Back when I was the head of Germany’s national railway, Deutsche Bahn, we managed to open the new Berlin central station in time for the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament. At the time, if anybody wanted to postpone a deadline, they had to run it by me. The complexity of that project was at least as great as what we’re now seeing with the Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (BER).” The long postponement will cost the airlines a lot of money. (Note: In that same interview, Mehdorn commented on his airline’s own mistakes, inefficiencies and its large financial losses in 2011.)

Munich’s much larger airport just celebrated its 20th birthday on May 17. Like Berlin, Munich (MUC) moved its airport to a new location in 1992. Unlike the Berliners, the Bavarians managed to do so smoothly and on time. Munich is now one of Germany’s and Europe’s top airports. It also ranks highly in passenger approval. Munich plans to open a third terminal in 2015 that will enable the airport to handle 50 million passengers a year. Munich has become a major European hub, and I enjoy flying in and out of Munich. I can’t say the same about Berlin. It’s unbelievable!

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