Berlin-Brandenburg Airport

Yearly CEO Departures on Time

BER Aufsichtsratssitzung
Berlin mayor and supervisory board member Michael Müller (left) pushed hard for the resignation of Karsten Mühlenfeld (right) and won. Source: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa

The scandal-plagued Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport appears to have a serious problem with doors – in both a technical and political sense. The technical problem has to do with the nearly 1,000 thousand doors that have to be fixed for fire safety reasons. The more vexing political one is its revolving-door of CEOs coming and going, in the struggle to complete a €6-billion ($6.4-billion) project that is more than 10 years behind schedule and costing taxpayers more than €1.3 million per day.

Karsten Mühlenfeld is the airport’s latest revolving-door victim.

The CEO signed his resignation papers over the weekend after clashing with the highly-politicized supervisory board over his decision to sack the airport’s technical director, Jörg Marks. Mr. Mühlenfeld, who held executive positions at Bombardier and Rolls Royce, was in the job for less than two years. The trained engineer and experienced project manager will clear his desk for Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, who is responsible for airport policy in the Berlin city-state government, the supervisory board announced Monday after a special meeting. He is the fourth CEO since the airport’s planned start in 2012, joining Rainer Schwarz and Hartmut Mehdorn, the former head of the German railway Deutsche Bahn.

“This is an appropriate, good and quick solution,” said Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, who as a supervisory board member pushed for Mr. Mühlenfeld’s replacement. Mr. Marks will also return to his former job as technical director.

Karsten Mühlenfeld is the latest example of what happens when politicians have a say in building an airport.

Berliner cynics – in no short supply – like to joke that the BER construction project is the funniest thing to come out of the capital since Billy Wilder filmed his comedy “One, Two, Three” shorty before the Berlin Wall went up. If he were alive, they say, the famed Hollywood producer would have plenty of material from the airport fiasco to make a film.

Mr. Mühlenfeld is the latest example of what happens when politicians have a say in building an airport, critics charge. The new airport is a joint undertaking of the state governments of Brandenburg and Berlin, each with a 37-percent stake, and the federal government with 26-percent interest. All three are represented on the airport’s supervisory board, which in German companies has sway over strategic decisions and can hire and fire a company’s executives. They all have a say and they all like to disagree.

Mr. Mühlenfeld is a case in point. Supervisory board members representing Berlin and the federal government wanted to replace the hard-nose, experienced manager after he decided on his own to replace Mr. Marks. Brandenburg wanted to retain the CEO to keep the project on track. In the end, the majority won.

The airport has a long history of fatal political decisions. Shortly before construction start, then-Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit, in his role as supervisory board chairman, decided against using a general contractor. He claimed the bid was too high from German construction company Hochtief, which has built airports around the world. But one of the main reasons was pressure from the Brandenburg state government to carve up the lucrative contract into bits and pieces and spread them around to local companies.

Engelbert Lütke Daldrup
Engelbert Lütke Daldrup will try his hand at completing the scandal-plagued Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. Maurizio Gambarini/DPA

Equally fatal were the costly and time-consuming  changes requested by the state owners. One typical example was a decision made later to build a second ramp for the super Airbus A380, requiring an entire row of shops to be relocated for contractual reasons. In 2012, the supervisory board reached another decision that had engineers, architects and construction managers shaking their heads in disbelief. It fired Gerkan, Marg & Partners, the prominent architectural firm in charge of planning. The angered team of experts headed off with all the plans and their knowledge of the airport’s various problems. Critics say the airport has yet to recover from this loss of know-how.

Add to this all the technical glitches. Several engineering and electronics firms, led by Siemens and Bosch, are struggling to gain control over the complex fire protection system that includes 65,000 sprinklers, thousands of smoke detectors, a labyrinth of smoke evacuation ducts and nearly 50 miles of cables, in addition to the faulty fire doors. No one can say with any certainty when Berlin-Brandenburg will open. It didn’t help Mr. Mühlenfeld that the deadline was pushed back under his watch. And no one can say what the final bill will be. The project has already ballooned three-fold from its original target of €1.7 billion. Corruption charges have also been leveled.

Maybe Mr. Daldrup will have a luckier hand at completing the project. Taxpayers certainly hope so. The website shows what their euros being spent on the delayed airport could otherwise finance, like more than 6 million kindergarten kids, 37,000 additional kilometers of autobahn around Berlin or even 50 more years of flights taking off and landing at Berlin’s existing airport, Tegel.


John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor:

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