April 2016


Constructing Airports is Hard: Denver and Berlin…

The last couple of weeks have seen stories on both sides of the Atlantic that have given me pause for thought – a chance to reflect on the history of airport construction in this modern era.

On the western side of the pond, Denver International Airport is finally – a mere 21 years and (roughly) 2 months after it opened – linked to downtown Denver via a commuter rail system, RTD’s A-Line.

Random Aside: That’s not the actual train line name, but the official name is incredibly long, long because a local university system coughed up $5 million to name the train after itself, even though the train doesn’t really serve any of its campuses. I don’t blame RTD for taking the money and running, but I do think the university in question displayed a sever lack of judgment in how it spent its money.

For those of us who lived (and grew up) in Denver in this era, the main thing most of us remember is that the airport opened years late. In fact, it was initially supposed to open on October 31, 1993. It didn’t. Nor did it open December 19, 1993, March 9, 1994, or May 15, 1994. It eventually opened on February 28, 1995.

I might note that the delayed opening of Denver International Airport allowed me to get a summer job working at the Stapleton International Airport’s finest fine dining restaurant, the Signature Room. The company running concessions at the old airport did not get as many concessions at the new airport and was having a terrible time holding on to employees. Thus they took any and all idiots to work for them. Including me. Let me just say that I am an adequate bus boy and a mediocre waiter.

Opening Day at Denver International Airport

Working at Stapleton, I got an employee discount, which I used to buy the above t-shirt.

The main reason – at least visible reason – that the airport’s opening was delayed was the automated baggage system. I couldn’t locate a news clip from that era, but at one critical test – a test held before the camera lenses of local news media – the system destroyed bags with what felt like automated glee.

There were probably other underlying reasons that the airport’s opening was delayed, but the baggage system was the big one. Per Wikipedia, Denver International Airport officially opened 16 months late, and US$2 Billion over budget.

At the time, that was a scandalous delay and a huge sum of money.

And another aside: the automated baggage system lasted a mere 10 years before it was tossed on the scrap heap: Denver Airport Saw the Future. It Didn’t Work.

Meanwhile, enter Berlin.

Like Denver, Berlin decided to build a new airport – and like Denver, there have been some delays – the airport was supposed to open on June 3, 2012.

There’s no typo there, I did, in fact, write 2012.

That’s more than four years ago and it has not yet opened.

And when I say, that was the planned opening date, they were serious: the airport was supposed to open then – I even had a ticket that was supposed to originate and return to the new airport – a multi-leg trip with three stops. The trip was memorable for an unfortunate technical reason: given that the airport hadn’t opened, my ticket was never really technically correct, and checking in for each set of flights had to involve human beings who would spend a lot of time typing on their keyboards trying to get me checked in.

As I’ve been watching this disaster unfold in slow motion, I’ve come to appreciate how well executed the Denver International Airport’s construction was – the main difference was that Denver’s airport had professional managers and a solid plan, even if the baggage system turned out to be a disaster.

The problems in Berlin are more numerous – in part because Berlin’s idiotic, incompetent, and deluded mayor (at the time) Klaus Wowereit thought he knew better than the professionals. The rank incompetence is flabbergasting and it feels like whenever news about the new Berlin Airport strikes, it’s never particularly hopeful.

Earlier in the month, they fired their spokesperson:

The spokesman for Berlin’s new airport, which is billions of euros over budget and years behind schedule, has been sacked for saying that the project was “shit” and “no one can guarantee” that it will ever open. … However, in his interview with PR industry magazine prmagazin, Abbou said: “No one, unless he is addicted to drugs, will give you any fixed guarantees for this airport.”

The PR guy lasted started his job in January and was fired in April.

Then, in an interview with a Berlin newspaper, Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, who was planning the new airport back in the 1990s, revealed that he thought the new Berlin airport would never open (see thelocal for English).

The man formerly responsible for planning Berlin’s much-delayed international airport has claimed the air hub will never open, after a series of failures have left city authorities red faced.

The numbers here are staggering: in theory the airport will open in late 2017, and it is at least €4.8 billion over budget.

Plus it appears that the new airport will already be too small – on day one.

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