New Berlin airport set to be delayed for 4th time

JUERGEN BAETZ Associated Press Published:

BERLIN (AP) -- The opening of Berlin's new airport, one of Germany's biggest infrastructure projects, may be postponed for a fourth time, officials said Monday, marking the latest delay in a project that has turned into an embarrassment for a country that prides itself on efficiency and punctuality.

The management of the new Willy Brandt airport has informed its government stakeholders of "major problems" with the project's fire safety system and other technical features, Transport Ministry spokesman Sebastian Rudolph said.

The airport was first scheduled to be opened in late 2011 and was designed to replace Berlin's two small and aging airports, Tegel and Schoenefeld, which served West and East Berlin respectively during Germany's Cold War division.

However, the 2011 opening was first delayed to June 2012, then March 2013, before a new date was set for Oct. 27. Fixing the problems announced on Monday is likely to delay the planned opening beyond that final date.

The costs for the Willy Brandt airport have already more than doubled to €4.4 billion ($5.8 billion). Postponing the opening date yet again will lead to additional costs, Rudolph acknowledged.

Finance Ministry spokeswoman Marianne Kothe said the government was "surprised by this development and nobody can put an exact figure on the financial repercussions."

The project has quickly turned into a fiasco for local politicians in Berlin and Brandenburg, the state that surrounds the capital and is the site for the new airport. The two state governments together own a majority in the airport's management company.

In Germany, a nation that has gained a reputation for planning, engineering and financial discipline, the airport's elusive opening has become the butt of jokes, many of them singling out Berlin's center-left mayor Klaus Wowereit.

Opposition lawmakers called Monday for him to step down.

"Such an incompetent handling of an infrastructure project of that dimension must have consequences," the Greens' national party leader Claudia Roth told n-tv television.

Local Greens and Pirate Party lawmakers both said they will organize a confidence vote to unseat Wowereit. The mayor's centrist coalition, however, holds a comfortable majority in the Berlin state legislature.

Transport Ministry spokesman Rudolph reiterated that the federal government, which holds only a minority stake in the airport, no longer has confidence in the airport's chief executive Rainer Schwarz.

The airport's stakeholders will hold a meeting to discuss the new situation as soon as possible, he added. Rudolph declined to speculate on a possible new opening date ahead of those talks.

German mass-circulation tabloid cited internal documents as saying that the opening might be delayed until 2015.

The airport's press department did not return calls seeking comment.

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Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed reporting.