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What Happened to the Berlin Brandendburg Airport?

The new Berlin Brandenburg airport was supposed to open in 2011. Today, March 2019, the Brandenburg still has not opened.

The optimistic plan is that this much-needed airport will open in 2020 or maybe 2021….

Given the airport’s history of promised and then missed dates, it is hard to know who or what to trust. Consider this brief look at the missed airport opening milestones: October 2011, June 2012, March 2013, October 2013, and June 2017.

The numerous planned and missed openings can be traced back to a litany of problems – all of which have resulted in cost overruns, scope creep, and mistrust in the leadership of the Brandenburg airport.

This blog is part of our regular series focused on lessons learned from large-scale projects. Read about the Boston Big Dig and California high-speed rail.

Our goal with this series is to highlight the lessons from projects that haven’t gone as planned, showing how these lessons should be used to improve the decision-making process before digging starts.

If you have large-scale or mega-construction project you’d like us to take a deep dive on, contact me with your ideas and suggestions.

The Facts on the Brandenburg Airport

The fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification emphasized the need for Germany to have a major commercial airport. As far back as 1990, the three primary airports: Tegel Airport, Schönefeld Airport, Tempelhof Airport – we already over-capacity and aging.

The goal was for a single airport that would become the primary commercial airport for Berlin and Brandenburg. The plan in 1991 was that three existing airports would close upon the opening of the Brandenburg airport in 2011.

15 years of planning went into the design and construction of the Brandenburg airport before construction began in 2006.

In anticipation of the new airport, two villages were removed – 335 citizens of Diepensee were compensated and received new homes in Königs Wusterhausen in 2004 and the 35 villagers of Selchow were moved to Großziethen.

This timeline is an overview of the problems plaguing the Brandenburg airport construction project:

  • 2006: construction of the main terminal building begins.

  • 2006: Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH (FBB) announces an opening date of October 2011.

  • 2010: FBB postpones the opening until June 3, 2012. This delay is blamed on the bankruptcy of the construction planning company.

  • 2012: airlines, shops, restaurants, and employees get ready for the opening. The Tegel and Schönefeld airports were scheduled to close on June 2, 2012. Planning was underway for highway closures and infrastructure requirements to support the closure of the airports and move of equipment to Brandenburg. A Lufthansa flight to the Frankfurt airport was planned and scheduled from Brandenburg on June 3 at 6 a.m.

  • 2012: on May 8, only 23 days before the scheduled airport opening, FBB canceled this date. This resulted in numerous costs, logistics issues, scheduling adjustments, and losses. This delay was blamed on issues with fire safety and the smoke exhaust system.

  • 2012: in September, the opening was delayed again, pushing the date to October 27, 2013.

  • 2013: on January 6, the FBB announced the Brandenburg airport is delayed until sometime in 2014. A concrete date was not provided. Numerous members of FBB resigned or were dismissed.

  • 2014-2015: on January 8, 2014 the FBB announced the airport would not open in 2014. In fact, the CEO of FBB suggested it was unlikely the Brandenburg airport would open before 2016, with 2017 and 2018 being possible opening dates.

  • 2016: the Tegel airport permit was slated to expire at the end of 2017. At this point, the Tegel airport managed over 60% of passenger traffic in Berlin. This placed increased pressure on the opening of the Brandenburg airport.

  • 2016: in May the approval for an underground station was not secured. This meant the airport could not open before 2017. Further deadlines and approvals were missed, leading airline executives to suggest the airport would not open before March 2018.

  • 2017: as of January 2017, the projected airport opening date was shifted to 2018 or 2019. Numerous top executives and decision-makers on the airport project were replaced. A number of issues including problems with the sprinkler system, lack of fire protection, 90 kilometres of cables incorrectly installed, 4 000 doors were improperly numbered, the escalators were too short, and the emergency line to the fire department was broken.

  • 2018: the airport is scheduled to open in 2020. In March, it was learned that the 750 display screens that had been installed in anticipation of an opening six years earlier, needed to be replaced. To further compound problems, the initial plan was now no longer able to handle the increase in passenger traffic.

  • 2019: there are still outstanding issues with the design, capacity, fire detection, and sprinkler systems. It is expected that the underlying issues with the fire protection system mean that 2020 opening date is in jeopardy.

In light of these dates and problems, consider this statement:

My prognosis: the thing will be torn down and built anew,” said Thorsten Dirks, the head of Lufthansa’s Eurowings budget subsidiary. (Whatever happened to Berlin’s deserted ‘ghost airport?)

The cost overruns associated with this construction project cannot be understated. With an initial budget of $2.4 billion, the budget has grown to $8.48 billion. It should be noted that this is the adjusted planned budget – for an airport that does not have a concrete opening date.

Why Hasn’t the Brandenburg Airport Opened?

The Brandenburg airport hasn’t opened due to a large number of systemic problems that have resulted in construction errors, scope creep, lack of oversight, bankruptcies, and personnel problems.

The reasons for the continued uncertainty around the opening of the Brandenburg airport can be tied to some key project break-downs and errors:

Too Many Stakeholders

The list of Brandenburg airport stakeholders includes: the state of Brandenburg, the German federal government, the mayor, the airlines, the passengers, airport employees, citizens of Berlin, the owners of the airport shops, restaurants, retail, and the existing airports.

This underscores a major issue with large-scale construction project – too many stakeholders. The more stakeholders, the harder it is to reach consensus and to make the hard decisions required at the outset of the construction plan.

Inconsistent Leadership

This construction project was run by a board of directors that lacked experience in airport construction. In addition, numerous members of the board and panel of decision-makers were accused of accepting bribes.

In 2014, it was discovered that Alfredo di Mauro, the chief planner for the airport’s fire protection system was not a qualified engineer. The mistakes made by di Mauro have cost the airport millions (if not billions) of dollars.

The primary construction company for the Brandenburg airport, Imtech, went bankrupt in 2015.

These highlights of inconsistent leadership underscore how important it is to have an independent party involved in the initial planning, cost estimation, and ongoing management of a project.

It’s important that with any construction project, you rely on a company like PCS to ask the hard questions, to review all line items, to vet all contractors and key personnel, to analyze the schedule, and to communicate with all stakeholders.

Scope Changes

There are unfortunately many instances of scope creep with the Brandenburg airport. Consider the impacts of the following two instances of scope creep.

CEO, Rainer Schwartz (subsequently dismissed), asked for changes in the design of the airport… Based on projections for increased airport traffic (as a result of the many years of delays), Schwartz requested the Brandenburg airport design be changed from rectangle to a “U” shape. This would increase the floor space and add two new piers to the main terminal.

To further compound the construction and design, Schwartz also requested a second level be added to the airport – to accommodate a shopping mall.

As you can imagine these large-scale scope changes resulted in a long list of issues including a redesign, changes to material and resource demands, safety concerns, along with the need to find retailers for the new second level.

Enter cost overruns, schedule delays, missed openings, a frustrated public, and deep mistrust in the leadership of the airport project.

What Can You Learn from the Brandenburg Airport?

If you can learn one thing from the Brandenburg airport construction project, it is this:

Every construction project, regardless of size has deep impacts for the community surrounding it.

Think of how the continued delays in the opening of this airport are impacting the people who have been counting on this airport.

Think of the airport employees, the owners of the retail slated to part of the airport, the airlines, the tourist companies counting on this hub, the people displaced from their homes, the taxpayers, and the people employed by the various construction and contracting companies.

Not to be overlooked are the deep impacts a failure of this magnitude has on the construction industry as a whole.

This quote from University of Oxford scholar Bent Flyvbjerg underscores how and why it’s so important to have an independent party involved from the outset of your construction project:

The policy implications are clear: legislators, administrators, investors, media representatives, and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust cost estimates and cost-benefit analyses produced by project promoters and their analysts.

Do not let your construction project continue this legacy.

PCS is here to give you the expert professional oversight, guidance, review, and analysis you need to keep the trust and faith of those relying on you for a successful project completion.

About the authorLee Thomas, MBA is the chairman and CEO of Project Cost Solutions. Lee has over 20 years of hands-on operational process experience under his belt. He is deeply committed to seeing your construction project succeed.

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