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'Eternal' delays to airport, billion-dollar concert hall hit German reputation for efficiency

Berlin's new airport was supposed to open in October 2011 but delay after delay and thousands of technical problems have made it a national joke. NBC News' Andy Eckardt reports.

BERLIN – Germans are world-famous for their efficiency, a stereotype both mocked and admired by their economically ailing European neighbors.

But this hard-won reputation is now under threat after a catalog of calamities affecting major construction projects.

Perhaps worst of all is what should already be the main airport for the capital, Berlin, which has been dubbed the “eternal” construction site by the U.K.-based Economist magazine and a “fiasco” by French newspaper Le Figaro.

Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, noted sadly that the international press had been asking, “What is it about Germany, this very efficient and effective economic power, are they not able to build a simple airport?"

It was supposed to open in October 2011 but is now not expected to be finished until 2014 at the earliest. Some staff who were hired for the opening have already been laid off.

Markus Schreiber / AP

A fence shields the main terminal of the unfinished Willy Brandt Airport near Berlin. It was supposed to have opened in late 2011 but now isn't expected to open until at least 2014 -- the cost having doubled to nearly $6 billion.

Then there’s Hamburg’s billion-dollar concert hall, ten times over budget and expected to open seven years late in 2017.

And in Stuttgart, angry protests over the demolition of the old train station to make way for a new one put officials into a costly spin.

They went back to the planning table, but after much discussion came back with a final design that was more expensive and much the same, according to a planning expert.

Germans are starting to worry they are becoming something of a laughingstock, with the airport’s woes the chief embarrassment.

"The entire republic, if not the entire world, is joking about the Berlin airport delay," said Ramona Pop, a Green Party leader in Berlin.

The cost of the Willy Brandt Airport -- named after the former German chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- has more than doubled to nearly $6 billion. The head of Brandt’s foundation has complained that the great man’s name “shouldn't be associated with the planning errors.”

It was supposed to have opened in late 2011 to cater for 30 million passengers a year, but today its visitors are mostly construction inspectors and safety experts.

The new terminal is up and the runway is being used by budget airlines from nearby Schönefeld Airport.

However, the fire protection system was installed incorrectly and there has been concern about an apparent shortage of check-in counters.

Additionally, a court has questioned the safety of future flight routes that pass over a nuclear reactor, while another ruled the "noise protection is insufficient."

The delays are hurting the 150 shops and restaurants that were supposed to open in the terminal.

"Our store interior, worth approximately $70,000, is fully in place at the terminal and collecting dust," said Markus Heckhausen, general manager of lifestyle store Ampelmann.

"We constantly renew our designs and in three to four years, the store furniture will probably be out of date," he added.

Gregor Klaessig invested $550,000 in his Fish&Chips restaurant, hired staff and purchased kitchenware. With no income in sight, the staff had to be laid off.

"I am shocked and have lost all faith in politicians," he said.

As for the concert hall, city officials in 2001 confidently predicted they would build the Elbe Philharmonic by 2010 at a cost of about $105 million.

Euroluftbild / EPA

The illuminated terminal of the Willy Brandt Airport in October 2012. Managers are reportedly spending $6,000 per day on electricity because they are unable to turn off the lights at the facility.

After a series of planning and construction failures, it has turned into a financial sinkhole with an estimated bill of more than $1 billion and a new opening date of 2017.

Stuttgart’s new train station, meanwhile, was supposed to be a major new transportation hub for southwestern Germany.

But when demolition work began on the old station in the fall of 2010, more than 50,000 people demonstrated against the project and dozens were injured when police used water cannons to break up the protest.

Officials’ efforts to handle the uproar were hardly a model of efficiency, according to one expert.

"If you look at what happened in Stuttgart, there was a huge round of mediation and participation, but the final result was the same project with a few modifications and even more expensive than it was before," said Professor Oliver Ibert, a planning expert at Free University Berlin.

But Ibert said the current furor would eventually die down.

"When the airport is open … I'm pretty sure the public discussion will be much calmer than it is today," he said.

After all, few remember that the beautiful Neuschwanstein Castle -- the model for Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland Park, California -- actually bankrupted Bavaria’s King Ludwig II in 1884.

It attracts some 1.3 million visitors a year, although they soon discover it was never actually finished and only a few rooms are decorated.


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