Berlin's AIRPORT

Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Chefs

The taxiways may be open at Berlin's new airport, but little else is.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin’s new airport has been a catalogue of disasters, and its opening, scheduled for 2011, has been delayed until late 2017. Now that is looking unlikely.

  • Facts


    • The airport has been plagued by construction problems, billions in cost overruns and poor planning and management.
    • Brandenburg state and Berlin each hold a 37 percent share in the airport, with the federal government holding the remaining 26 percent.
    • A special meeting of the airport’s supervisory board is scheduled for Friday.
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The runways and check-in desks of Berlin Brandenburg Airport were scheduled to come to life in 2011, but a series of expensive set-backs delayed its opening until 2017. Now, even that looks doubtful. Experts argue that the airport’s catalogue of disasters stems from the fact it is managed by too many politicians and too few qualified specialists.

“Almost without exception, it is politicians who deal with finances on the airport’s supervisory board, there’s not a single expert,” said Manuel René Theisen, an economics professor and publisher of a German trade magazine on supervisory boards.

“Companies that are mostly or completely under public control are, as experience shows, almost always managed less effectively,” he said. “Above all, they are negligently and inefficiently monitored and supervised.”

Dieter Janacek, an economic policy spokesman for the Green Party parliamentary group, said that the close links between the supervisory board, the political establishment and company management “do not exactly facilitate strict oversight”.

“The question is more than justified whether... the supervisory board is only an extension of the political establishment.”

Hans-Ulrich Wilsing, Partner at Linklaters law firm

In December 2014, Axel Arendt, an aviation professional and former head of Rolls Royce, was appointed to oversee the supervisory board of the already crisis-ridden airport, known as BER.

But just two months later, Mr. Arendt lost his post amid political wrangling. The State of Brandenburg pushed for Karsten Mühlenfeld as the new airport head, and, in return, the City of Berlin demanded the top job in the supervisory board position. Brandenburg and Berlin each hold 37 percent of the shares in the new airport, and the federal government has the remaining 26 percent.

So Berlin mayor Michael Müller assumed Mr. Arendt’s seat at the top of the supervisory board, meaning another politician was on board, rather than a professional who might know what it takes to build an airport.

Political infighting is just part of the problem at the over-budget and long-delayed project, which was originally touted as the “most modern” of airports. It was designed to beef up the capital’s infrastructure, with the aim of becoming a busy international hub by 2011. News of the cancellation of the airport’s original launch date came completely out of the blue.

In the wake of that scandal, the Brandenburg Court of Audit scrutinized the supervisory committee’s work between 2011 to 2013 and published a damning 500-page report in February.

Hans-Ulrich Wilsing, a corporate partner at the law firm Linklaters in Düsseldorf, said the Brandenburg audit report was “a sweeping condemnation” of the airport’s supervisory board.

“The question is more than justified whether… the supervisory board is only an extension of the political establishment,” he said. “And there is no recognition of the obligation to handle taxpayers’ money as effectively as possible.”

Berlin mayor Michael Müller is chairman of the airport’s supervisory board. Source: DPA


A seat on a supervisory board should be seen as “an honorary post,” Mr. Wilsing said. He called on the members to honestly ask themselves whether they have the necessary expertise and time to monitor such a complex undertaking.

Mr. Theisen, the business economics professor, also doubted the BER supervisory board is up to the job. He noted that politicians often jealously safeguard their political interests, rather than focusing on the common good.

Mr. Janacek, the Green Party’s economic spokesman, agreed: “Members of the government are understandably not experts in business management or in controlling construction costs — something that would have been especially relevant in the case of BER.”

He stressed that construction and infrastructure projects, in particular, demanded a specific skillset to oversee the complex processes.

Since the 2011 delay, a string of opening dates have been announced and discarded. Meanwhile the airport is costing more than three times its planned budget and maintaining the cavernous building alone costs the government millions of euros every month, news reports say.

The current head of the airport, Mr. Mühlenfeld, is still pledging that BER will make its planned debut in late 2017. But outside experts are not so sure. Building inspectors in the Dahme-Spreewald district have called for improvements to the terminal’s smoke extractor, making the schedule perilously tight, and, some say, unlikely.

On Friday the supervisory board is due to hold a special meeting. Rather than focusing on the dwindling time left to finish the main terminal by late 2017, the agenda largely hinges on political disputes. It looks like construction is set to face further delays.


Silke Kersting reports for Handelsblatt from Berlin, focusing on consumer protection, construction, environmental policy and climate change. To contact the author:

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