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Berlin's New Airport: Still In A Holding Pattern

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The Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg International Airport was supposed to open in 2012, but has been delayed repeatedly and is now set to open in 2017. The cost overruns and delays have made airport the butt of frequent jokes.

Germany may be Europe's economic giant, but Berlin remains the lone major European capital without a proper airport. The mismanaged, roughly $6-billion project to build one became a national laughing stock that has dragged on for years.

Ground was broken on the airport in 2006 and the opening was delayed just shortly before the planned date in 2012. The airport's managers are now pledging that Germany's third-largest airport will open on the outskirts of Berlin before the end of 2017.

Until then, the would-be airport named for the late Berlin mayor and German chancellor Willy Brandt remains a favorite with German comedians. Like these clips that a ZDF network show combined and dubbed a few years ago from the Star Trek movies "First Contact" and "Generations," just as the Enterprise is about to crash land.

In the meme, Lt. Cmdr. Data, who is piloting the starship, says they are out of gas and their only choice is to land at Berlin's new airport. But Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, after learning it's the year 3745, remarks the airport still isn't finished.

Lars Wagner, a spokesman for the new airport, says he's heard it all before.

"From time to time we also hear a new joke, but to be honest, all these jokes are ... not that new," he says.

Nor are revelations about the project's mishaps. Years of bad planning, cost overruns and alleged corruption led to what the new airport CEO Hartmut Mehdorn says were 150,000 defects. Many of the issues nearly tanked the project, including faulty fire protection systems and miles of mislaid communication cables.

Wagner says they've taken big strides toward fixing the problems. He dismisses critics' claims that work on the new airport won't be finished before the construction permit expires late next year, and encourages skeptics to come see the progress for themselves..

For the equivalent of about $11, visitors can take a guided tour by bus or on their bicycle around the sprawling complex. On a recent rainy day, about 30 people showed up to get a look at the buildings and runways that will — in theory — handle up to 85 flights an hour.

"We thought we'd come and see what point they are at," says retiree Dieter Froese, 79, who was visiting with a group of friends.

Kristine Sallet, 32, who was with her 9-month-old son, Samuel, says she wanted to see how billions in taxpayer money have been spent so far.

"There are mixed views about this, that some of us don't really believe it's going to open one day," she says.

Also on the tour is her 14-year-old cousin, Andrew Sallet, visiting from Tucson, Ariz.:

"She told me about it and I was like: 'Oh cool, it's an empty airport,'" he says. "I've never really seen an empty airport before and it is brand new, so it'll be cool."

He and other tourists wander between the rows of gleaming new check-in counters and stare at the high ceilings in the eerily quiet hall that should one day handle 28 million passengers a year. That is more than at any other German airport, save for Frankfurt and Munich, Wagner says.

One person who refuses to go on these tours is Martin Delius, who is with the Pirate Party and chairs a local parliamentary inquiry into the mishandling of the project.

"It's a pretty good marketing scam," he says. "They finally opened the airport for the public. There are no planes landing there or boarding there."

"Yeah, it's a good thing for the company, actually," Delius says, adding that it's less so for the taxpayers, because people aren't getting to see the work that still needs to be done, including on fire safety and cable systems.

He says his committee will issue a report on those and other airport shortcomings by next spring.

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