No travellers, but Berlin's 'phantom' airport still a draw

Visitors at the check-in area of the unfinished BER Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg International Airport in Schoenefeld, during a guided tour on Sept 1. Berlin's troubled international airport project has been fraught with mismanagement, fraud and c
Visitors at the check-in area of the unfinished BER Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg International Airport in Schoenefeld, during a guided tour on Sept 1. Berlin's troubled international airport project has been fraught with mismanagement, fraud and corruption, and a vicious streak of bad luck.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BERLIN • Berlin's troubled international airport project, five years behind schedule, has been fraught with mismanagement, fraud and corruption, and bad luck.

But while the site has become a laughing stock for Germans, the consortium behind it has turned a disaster into opportunity, with guided tours an unexpected hit. More than one million people have visited the "phantom" facility since the two-hour tours began in 2007.

And interest has taken off since the planners blew past the 2012 opening date, driven by a Germanic love of technology, bafflement at the money pit consuming their taxes, and perhaps just a touch of schadenfreude, or the pleasure of seeing someone else fail.

At €10 (S$15.80) a person, the tours are a minimal source of income compared to the airport's budget that has ballooned to more than €5 billion- three times more than the original €1.7 billion .

On a recent day, two dozen paying guests listened to a detailed description of the technical specifications of the 21st-century airport.

A guide led the group to a viewing tower, empty gates with expectant jet bridges, a dedicated power plant and the gleaming glass-and-steel terminal building at the heart of the project's woes.

The tour came to empty lifts quietly shuttling up and down between the departures floor and an underground rail station, where a "ghost" train makes the trip into the city centre a few times a day. The smell of sawdust hung in the air, cables dangled from the ceiling and a surprisingly small number of hard-hatted workers shuffled in and out.

After more than an hour, Austrian retired social worker Sylvia Groth, 60, asked: "Could you please say something about the delays? What led to them, when will the airport open, has anyone been convicted?"

The guide took a deep breath and began to explain serious technical flaws - especially in the fire safety and smoke extraction system.

"We had an architect who wasn't a technician," he added. "And politicians did not pay close enough attention to who was doing what."

But there was no mention of the manager in charge of the ventilation system who was convicted last October of taking bribes, or of the recent bankruptcy of a major contractor.

The official opening is now slated for late 2017, although locals say they will believe it when they see it.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2015, with the headline 'No travellers, but Berlin's 'phantom' airport still a draw'. Print Edition | Subscribe