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In Berlin, an airport in limbo

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BERLIN -- After two decades of complications, costly management woes are hindering the completion of Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) Airport.

BERLIN -- Perhaps Europe’s last remaining bastion of fractured airport systems, Berlin had hoped to change it all -- at least structurally -- by June 3 of this year.

Patrons of the city’s existing Schoenefeld Airport have watched with anticipation as the adjacent 1,470 square-hectre construction site took shape with impressive Schinkel and Bauhaus-influenced buildings flanked by long, slender runways.

But 26 days before Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BBI) (airport code: BER) was due to host its inaugural flight, officials fired private contractor PG BBI and its director over mismanagement of fire safety measures — suddenly and indefinitely suspending BBI's debut.

Tegel Airport (TXL) would also no longer close as soon as originally planned.

BBI will be operational “as soon as possible,” Germany’s taz quoted Berlin major Klaus Wowereit as saying at a press conference at the beginning of the month. He and Brandenburg’s minister president agreed they didn’t know whether the new opening date would be August or September.

Days later, officials announced March 17, 2013 as the new opening date — a full ten-and-a-half months on from the previous one — raising questions about who is truly responsible for the project’s apparent mismanagement, particularly in a city and state with little economic flexibility.

“I’ll tell you this does mean extra costs,” Wowereit added, without specifying how much or whether German states would have to pump additional funds into the project. Officials say they are currently calculating financial estimates, while Berlin-based airlines such as Air Berlin say they are acutely aware of the problems this creates:

"We're not just taking a financial hit, this damages the reputation of our hub, and that's hardly even quantifiable," Air Berlin head Hartmut Mehdorn told Reuters.

"A delay until the end of October would have been painful enough; we only could have worked through that with significant extra effort on our part."

Such delays are by no means the only controversy surrounding BBI.

Following the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, it became clear that Berlin's existing Tegel, Tempelhof (THF) and Schoenefeld (SXF) airports would be unable to meet air travel demand in the coming decades. By 1996, Schoenefeld had been identified as the location upon which the new BBI would expand, while Tegel and Tempelhof would eventually be closed.

2004 saw the first wave of permission given to begin construction on BBI, followed closely by law suits from Schoenefeld-area residents about anticipated aircraft noise. The complaints successfully hindered the start of construction until 2006.

Meanwhile, Tempelhof Airport was officially closed in October 2008.

In 2010, a planning firm involved in the BBI project went bankrupt, pushing the airport's originally-planned November 2011 opening back to June 3, 2012. Then following publication of BBI's flight paths, additional aircraft noise law suits were filed, with many residents even taking to the streets. Public demonstrations continued up until January 2012.

Following the most recent fire safety debacle with BBI, some experts even say March 2013 is optimistic if the airport association overseeing construction insists on assuming roles formerly occupied by private contractors.

“It’s going to take at least three months for this [oversight-transfer] to become official," an involved building surveyor told the Berliner Morgenpost, while another Berlin project manager told the paper he also anticipates more delays:

It could take another six additional months for building to be complete with all the proper certifications, he said, adding that "if work begins right away and everything moves forward from here with uninterrupted military discipline, then March 17, 2013 just may happen."

PHOTO: Björn Roll, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure