Berlin Brandenburg Airport Project

From Visions of Grandeur To A Grand Embarrassing Failure

 

After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, an integrated city of Berlin emerged. This new unified and integrated city needed to upscale several of its services and one of them was their ability to handle Air Travel. Berlin already had two airports viz., Schonefeld and Tegel. But they were just not able to meet the increasing volume of air travel. These two airports were also severely old and unable to keep up with newer regulations and technological advancements.

It was decided that a larger airport replete with latest technology and resplendent with tasteful design elements would be created and that it alone would be able to handle as many as 45 million passengers annually and close down and decommission the previous two airports in Berlin.

This idea was approved and on 2nd May 1991 the Berlin Brandenburg Flughafen Holding GmbH (we will just call it BBF ..whew..) was established for planning, constructing and operating the new  Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER).

The BBF was owned by three shareholders and they ware “The State of Brandenburg” (37%), “State of Berlin” (37%) and “The Federal Republic of Germany” (26%).

BBF appointed the mayor of Berlin on its supervisory board. And the work got started. A very handsome budget of Euro 2.83 Billion was approved for the same.

At this time the BBF decided to follow the international trend of participating with a private party for ensuring efficiency in construction and operational efficiency as well. After a lot a discussions (which also had political shades and wrangling between the three main shareholders about their choices of private parties) finally one group of companies was given the official mandate of doing a study, planning, constructing the airport and operating the same for 50 yrs. This selection was done in 1999.  A dream come true for any private organization. However the other companies filed a lawsuit saying that there was a bias in selection. This lead to an independent review which confirmed bias and this lead to annulment of the contract in 1999 itself.

Now the company whose contract was annulled and the company who filed the lawsuit decided to bid together. They created a very comprehensive proposal in November 2000, with the promise to finish construction by 2002 and open the airport in mid 2007.

By now most members of the BBF committee had changed with some other ministers and politicians. They just shot this proposal down citing that it was impractical to privatize the airport. However to keep these companies from filing another legal suit, BBF gave them a compensation of Euro 50 million.

By this time over Euro 90 Million was spent before even a plan got created, let alone any concrete construction work.

The moment the privatization idea was dropped even more political wrangling ensued. This lead to the decision that the BBF in its current form was not qualified to conduct this ambitious project. Hence a restructuring was done and a new organization emerged duly renamed as Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH (FBB…. Yes they just flipped it… so original).

In 2004, the moment FBB zeroed in on the area for the construction of the new airport, the local residents of that area rose up against it and filed a suite that lasted nearly 2 yrs and finally decided on in March 2006.

By now 15 yrs had already elapsed and a good amount of the original budget had dilapidated to a great extent and yet the project construction had not even begun.

Finally in late 2006 the construction actually began.

But by now, because of the court ruling, the budget of the project also had to include the sound-proofing of the houses next to the airport and realizing that the estimations were way off the real prices, the budget was now pegged at Euro 4.5 billion.

With a “Planner-in-Chief” in place the new date for opening was announced as 30th October 2011.

What has to be noticed here is that the organization structure of FBB was not essentially a strong matrix or a projectized one (the most ideal one for FBB as its sole work was to construct the project of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport), instead it was a weak matrix with strong independent departments, each with a Head of Department. This made any kind of co-ordination excessively difficult. The planner-in-chief also seemed to be a person with very low leadership skills who did not understand much about project management as well. He was soon reduced to a rubber stamp for approvals by the ambitious and bickering HoD’s.

The most devastating part of the entire planning was that there was no consolidated plan or schedule. Each of the departments had their own schedule which were followed almost totally in isolation of other plans. This lead to too many overlaps. Things like, making the taxi-way only to be trenched (dug up) for laying the cables for the electrical fittings and alarms, or for drainage or for power cables etc., became a common practice. This not only hampered work, duplicated effort and created an immensely unhealthy working environment.

However all this while the planner-in-chief continued to stick to opening dates as 2011, without himself being really aware of the ground level problems.

Just a month before 30th October 2011 opening date, the entire FBB came together to announce a delay and suggested the new opening day as June 2012.

By this time the project had already consumed Euro 4.3 Billion.

Another disaster struck. The BBF / FBB had adopted BBI as the airport code (like LAX for Los Angeles, SIN for Singapore, DEL for Delhi Airport and TAS for Tashkent airport). This was assumed by everyone to be available. They applied for IATA licenses and stationary and advertisements on this code only to be told in mid 2012 by IATA that this code is already used in India for Biju Patnaik Bhubneshwar International Airport. This came as a big shock and an embarrassment. For over 20 yrs no one had even checked if this code was available or not. Just assumed.

The code was hurriedly changed to BER. This meant all the technology, IT, Boards, Branding, Stationary, Licenses applications, Call signs, Global positioning systems needed to be updated. This not only costed them more but also created delays.

Just one week before Angela Markel (Chancellor of Germany) was to inaugurate the Brandenburg airport, an event where 10,000 high profile guests were to grace the occasion, the opening ceremony was cancelled due to faults found in the Fire Alarm and Smoke Processors (extractors). The next possible dates were not provided immediately but an assurance of a thorough check-up was promised. However the moment the reviews and checks started several horrendous and alarming anomalies came to light. Some of the disclosed ones could be listed as under. Everyone knows that there are many many more issues and anomalies that are not disclosed to avoid further public and legal backlash.

  1. Nearly 100 kms of wiring and cabling were incorrectly installed based on a design that was replaced by a newer layout design but due to the departmental communication issues, the vendors did not come to know of the same.

  1. In a bid to make the design aesthetically pleasing and “One of Kind” the entire roof sections of the airport turned out to be more than twice the regulated weight thus posing a serious accidental and structural risks to the entire airport building.
  2. The quality of the wiring was seriously substandard and it was obvious that someone somewhere had siphoned off money leading to “Cutting corners” during implementation.
  3. Almost 60% of the escalators were not working properly or not at all.

  1. Over 4,000 doors and thousands of signboards were incorrectly numbered or wrongly placed.
  2. Some of the lifts installed were too small for passengers with trollies.
  3. The emergency power backup was faulty and error prone
  4. The emergency line to the fire department was incorrect and faulty
  5. Severe and multiple corruption allegations against the board members, politicians and vendors.
  6. The check-in counters were theoretically designed to handle 60 passengers per hour but during checks and simulations they could not handle even 20 passengers per hour. This would create huge bottlenecks at every counter and eventually delay flights to the extent of cancellations.
  7. Solution to the Check-in problem was to create temporary tents outside the airport for “Second Class Passengers”. And it was documented that these second class passengers were Non-german airlines belonging to some Asian and African countries. No wonder they were branded as racist as well. None of the “Other Airlines” wanted to be a part of this arrangement and hence this “Racist” temporary solution was called off in lieu of a permanent solution even if it caused delays.
  8. Smoke exhaust vents were made on the “Floor” of the entire airport. Fire inspectors were aghast at this Kindergarten science mistake. Smoke rises and not settles on floor.

To handle all these known issues FFB announced the next possible date as March 2013.

Almost immediately all the top management of FFB was reshuffled. However the organization structure remained the same. From the CEO to the Mayor, from HODs to the Technical directors were all sent packing. The technical director was accused for taking bribes to the extent of Euro 680,000 and the case for this is still going on.

It also came to light that the chief technical designer and planner for the fire systems was not even an engineer. He got this job by simply lying in his interview and resume. He worked for 5 yrs on this role before being discovered for this fraud. All his drawings and approvals came under review and redesign. Hence even the 2013 deadline was cancelled and a new date for opening was agreed upon by the newly instituted FBB team. The new date was June 2017. They gave themselves a heavy margin of time to crease out all the problems.

All of this received excessively hostile press coverage nationally and a ridicule, internationally.

The FBB organization structure still remained the same. And there was still no consolidated or integrated project plan. So much for “Lessons Learned”.

Every new member of the FBB board spent more time discrediting their predecessors than actually taking remedial actions or learning from past mistakes.

In late 2014, one of the main construction vendors filed for bankruptcy and opted out with heavy losses. The FBB tried to hire another replacement construction company but no suitable or financially feasible proposal came forward. This made the entire construction and project to shut between 2014 to early 2016. Absolutely no work.

 

In 2016 there was another whirlpool of political storm because the main spokesperson of FBB stated in a media interview that there was too much corruption, political wrangling and conflict of interest during planning and awarding of the contract. This time, however, the FBB spokesperson got fired.

By this time, they realized that even June 2017 opening is just not possible. FBB doled out another date of Oct 2018.

However this brought another problem to fore. They started losing interest (tenancy offers) from some of the largest airlines. Lufthansa, which has itself been suffering from serious staff strikes and operational issues, was the first to show its disinterest in moving to this horribly delayed airport. This was followed by a lot of other international airlines.

Another audit of the emergency and fire systems held in late 2017, again unearthed severe issues. Issues and faults so high in criticality that the entire design and installation were rejected and ordered to be redone from scratch.

The project had already costed to the extent of Euro 6.8 Billions. And the airport was not at all opened.

By this time the FBB had provided another date viz., Oct 2020, for opening of the airport. The new chief-planner himself confided to the media that even this deadline is not feasible and the earliest the airport can open is not before end of 2021. However now, it seems, no one really cares other than FBB.

No work has happened from Mid 2018 till the writing of this blog. There is no major construction vendor in place to continue work so far.

Even if FBB tries to complete construction and try and open the airport, there are some major issues and challenges facing the project. Some of these are: -

  1. Some of the cable and wiring has been installed and lying there unused for over 10 yrs now and due to lack of use and maintenance, are heavily decaying and would need replacements and repairs.
  2. Most of the movable bridges that connect the airport to the aircraft have not be used and lying in one position since last 8 yrs or so, thus jamming up most of their moving motors, blocking their air vents and flattening the rubber roller on which the bridge stands and moves. Current estimates are at 30% replacements.

  1. Some of the companies that were contracted to make airport specific taxi fleet and busses fleet have filed for compensation and loss of business due to delay where they are not at fault.
  2. 750 Display screens have not been switched on since last 7 yrs or so. And they may not even support the latest software for the new display control system if upgraded.

  1. The demand has now grown even higher hence the airport would have to be expanded the moment or even before it is opened.
  2. Over the years of inspirations, several computer consoles, window panels, bathroom fittings and as many as 3,000 smoke detectors have gone missing.
  3. There are several thousand light bulbs that run almost continuously as there is no way for them to be turned off without turning off the power of the airport.
  4. Several hundred freshly planted expensive and exotic trees had to be cut down as they were planted in the wrong place.

There are many other issues and problems, but one thing is common, they all started because of the way it was planned and the way the organization has been structured.

Right now as I write this blog, there is something very interesting happening at this airport. This airport has developed so much interest among the tourists for being the “Airport that never flew”, tour operators have started providing half day bicycle tours inside the airport with the main tour guide telling them the issues, mistakes or corruptions that kept this airport from opening.

This is a huge loss for the Germans as such but bigger is the loss that they suffered from the loss of reputation. At a time when Germans were known for their planning and precision, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport has created a completely different image of German project efficiency. 

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