Embarrassing delays for new Berlin airport

Berlin - For a country that prides itself on efficiency and punctuality, the saga of Berlin's new airport, whose opening was delayed for a fourth time on Monday, has become something of a national joke and source of embarrassment for Germany.

The mayor of the capital city, Klaus Wowereit, said managers for the new Willy Brandt airport have determined that it's no longer possible to open on October 27. He insisted it wasn't yet possible to give a new date, but the delay means the capital's airport won't be opened until 2014 at the earliest - about three years later than originally planned.

The state and national governments that hold stakes in the airport were informed last week of "major problems" with the project's fire safety system and other technical features, Transport Ministry spokesman Sebastian Rudolph said.

The airport, one of the country's biggest infrastructure projects, is supposed to replace the city's two aging and increasingly cramped airports, Tegel and Schoenefeld, which served West and East Berlin respectively during Germany's Cold War division.

It was first scheduled to open in late 2011, then delayed to June 2012. That date was abandoned only a few weeks before the airport was due to open; the inauguration was put back to March 2013, and then postponed again to October.

Costs have already more than doubled to ?4.4 billion ($5.8 billion). Postponing the opening again will lead to additional costs, the Transport Ministry's Rudolph acknowledged.

The project has embarrassed local politicians in Berlin and Brandenburg, the state that surrounds the capital and is the site for the new airport. The two states together own a majority in the airport's management company.

In Germany, a nation with a reputation for planning, engineering and financial discipline, the continuing delays to the airport's opening has become the butt of jokes. Berlin's center-left mayor Wowereit - a deputy chairman of the country's main opposition Social Democrats - has faced criticism for what opponents view as an overly relaxed attitude to the apparent management and planning failures.

Wowereit faced calls from opponents Monday to step down. He said he had no intention of resigning as mayor - but announced that he would hand over his job as chairman of the airport operator's supervisory board to Matthias Platzeck, the governor of Brandenburg state, where the airport is located.

The board will meet Jan. 16 to review the situation, and Wowereit said it is expected to hear calls for the removal of airport CEO Rainer Schwarz. The federal government says it no longer has confidence in Schwarz.

Platzeck's office, meanwhile, announced late Monday that the governor will seek a vote of confidence in the Brandenburg state legislature's next session over the airport because "he wants to be absolutely certain of the full support" of the parties in his left-wing government.

In Berlin, local opposition lawmakers said they will organize a confidence vote this week to unseat Wowereit. The mayor's centrist coalition, however, holds a comfortable majority in the Berlin state legislature.

Wowereit rejected calls for him to take personal responsibility for the airport's woes, adding that he hoped any further delays would be announced as soon as they are known.

"That's better than trying to meet deadlines that can't be met," he said.

The airport, whose construction was started in 2006, is designed to handle an annual 27 million passengers, but the existing two airports already handled 25 million passengers last year - raising fears that the airport may already be too small when it opens.

The German government moved from Bonn to Berlin in 1999, and the city has become an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Germany's busiest airports, Frankfurt and Munich, handle 57 million and 38 million passengers a year, respectively.

A panel of inquiry in the Berlin state legislature is already looking into the airport's problems. Its chairman, Martin Delius of the opposition Pirate Party, had a sarcastic response to the latest delay.

"Let's start on the next airport already," he wrote on Twitter. "This one didn't work out."

- SAPA-AP

 
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