“This terminal is the best-tested building in Germany”

In a week – finally – the new capital airport BER will go online. His boss Engelbert Lütke Daldrup explains why the construction took so long – and what has to change in air traffic due to Corona.

Breakdown airport, escape port, chaos construction site: Over the years, the not so new capital city BER has received many nicknames – and Germany and Berlin have earned a lot of scorn and ridicule around the world. Its opening had to be postponed a total of five times since the first failed start in May 2012.

All of this should be history from next Saturday: On October 31, BER should finally go online. And this time really. This is thanks not least to the current managing director of the airport company, Engelbert Lütke Daldrup.

Photo series with 12 pictures

After three managers before him, including ex-Bahn boss Hartmut Mehdorn, failed on the cable harnesses, smoke extraction systems and anchors on Germany’s most famous construction site, it is now he who makes possible what many thought was impossible. t-online spoke to Lütke Daldrup about the path to the final opening, the future of air traffic, the importance of champagne – and his first flight from BER.

t-online: Mr. Lütke Daldrup, a miracle will happen next Saturday: The major Berlin airport BER opens – more than eight years after the originally planned date. How big should the monument be that the city must erect for you?

Engelbert Lütke Daldrup: I am interested in the Berlin Brandenburg Airport “Willy Brandt”, not monuments.

Have you at least chilled champagne?


Phew You can be happy! Are you not celebrating this historic day at all?

Of course, the opening is an important event …

… we are now almost at ease that you see it the same way …

… but there is no party. Because it is even more important that BER has proven itself in the short and medium term. That means: We have to show in the next weeks and months that flight operations really work. And in the long term we have to overcome the corona crisis. After all, we are experiencing the greatest crisis in aviation since World War II.

So the champagne won’t be available for a few weeks?

To put your mind at ease: I won’t open any champagne later either. After taking so long to finally finish this project, there really is no time for parties. We just open it.

Nevertheless: You have at least managed what even renovators like Hartmut Mehdorn failed to do. Are you at least a little proud of yourself?

I am proud of my team. It’s been through tough years. There were many cancellations of the BER opening. Despite this, some of the employees worked hard to keep the two Berlin airports Tegel and Schönefeld online. Another part fought at the same time to put the construction disaster at BER in order and finally to finish the building. We can be proud of that.

What is it like to be responsible for the worst construction site in Germany?

When I was supposed to take this job around three and a half years ago, almost everyone advised me against it. I did it anyway, and I knew it was going to be tough work. It was also clear to me that the political situation with the three shareholders, the Bund, Berlin and Brandenburg, is complicated. And I knew that the project was being watched critically by a broader public.

The BER finisher
Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, born in 1956, has been Managing Director of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport Company (FBB) since 2017. Before that, the doctor of engineering, nicknamed “Drängelbert”, worked in various functions as an urban developer and spatial planner – including for the public administrations of Leipzig and Berlin. Lütke Daldrup has been a member of the SPD for many years. After a stint as State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Building and Transport, he was most recently the Airport State Secretary of the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller.

What did you think after your first day at work in March 2017?

I only spent the first three months getting an overview, analyzing the risks and creating a schedule. In autumn 2017 we finally told the Supervisory Board that we would need another three years – and that it would cost a lot of money again. So it happened.

One problem was the thicket of companies that earned a lot of money from making new plan adjustments, so they were not interested in a quick completion. How difficult was it to clean up?

I want to be fair: Even before me, a few people have already tackled this problem, I didn’t start from scratch. But we checked a lot again, parted with some service providers and adjusted contracts with partners. All with the aim that we can set up a reliable schedule and, above all, keep it.

You are an expert in large buildings. Did you still learn anything during this time?

I didn’t know that much about dowel support systems before. Seriously: Of course you learn something new every day.

What are dowel support systems?

It’s about the previously approved dowels installed in different walls and the cable routes attached to them, some of which suddenly no longer met the new standard at BER. In addition to technical questions, I have often wondered what flowers the German regulatory system is producing.

For example?

For example, that German building standards have quadrupled in the past 20 years. If you – like us – are checked very strictly, it is an extremely small-scale process. We had to work through more than 20,000 defects in the fire alarm system and safety lighting alone. That took more than three years. Hundreds of people were busy with it. At BER you can see what it means to implement the German set of standards one-to-one. It takes a long time and costs a lot of money.

Lütke Daldrup: Lütke Daldrup: “BER technology is state of the art” (source: dpa)

Conversely, does that mean that when building other buildings you don’t pay so much attention to the details?

No, but the strictest building regulations in the republic apply in Brandenburg. For BER, I would say: this airport terminal is the best-tested building in Germany.

On the way to the best-tested building in Germany, did you sometimes think it would be better to demolish BER and rebuild it?

No. Even if this nonsense is told over and over again, it remains nonsense. The basic structure was and was intact. We just had to replace almost everything behind the double ceilings and on the technical floors. That is why the technology at BER is state of the art.

However, one could also say that Berlin will open an airport in 2020, the architecture and interior design of which is 20 years old.

As with all buildings, the architecture was designed years before completion. But we also respected them because we consider the terminal to be very beautiful, elegant and transparent. The thousands of people who have already simulated the operation as testers confirmed this by the way.

Except for the trash cans, which were criticized as too small.

That is why they are no longer designed as nicely, but larger and more functional.

One last look back: Who is responsible for one of the biggest construction disasters in the country’s history?

Basically: The responsibility for the construction of the BER was and still is the responsibility of the management at all times.

A bird's eye view of BER airport: Before the Corona crisis, it was often said that the airport was too small for Berlin. (Source: dpa / Soeren Stache)A bird’s eye view of BER airport: Before the Corona crisis, it was often said that the airport was too small for Berlin. (Source: Soeren Stache / dpa)

The corona pandemic is hitting air traffic hard. Nevertheless, you expect that passenger numbers will have reached the pre-crisis level again in a few years. In view of the discussions about climate protection, is that even desirable?

Complicated question.

When you get the BER opened, you will be able to answer them too.

First of all, we have a task: We have to ensure that the capital region and all of Eastern Germany are connected to Europe and the world. Business trips can be partially avoided through digital offers such as video telephony. That will happen too. But a digital vacation is pointless. People want to travel, visit friends and relatives. This is a right we shouldn’t deny anyone else. Air traffic is needed for this.

Does this also apply to domestic German flight connections?

The extent to which we need domestic German air traffic depends on whether Deutsche Bahn is able to create attractive alternatives. Not every flight within Germany makes sense. But there are also many distances over which the railway is not competitive for most people. And flying will continue to play a major role here.

Do you anticipate further initiatives to make flying unattractive – for example minimum prices for tickets?

First of all, politics has a completely different task: If we have virtually no international air traffic, our globally networked economy will not get back on its feet. The current situation, in which there are hardly any intercontinental flights or intra-European connections, will not last long economically.

That sounds like: just no further burdens. Your party friends from the SPD say something different.

That may be true. From today’s perspective, however, the air traffic tax is an almost absurd instrument, because Corona has caused such a sharp decline in flights that the greatest climate protectors could never have imagined. That is why it must now be a matter of overcoming the aviation crisis.

When do we know whether it has been successful?

When it is clear that the major airlines and major airports will survive.

Are you worried about Lufthansa?

I’m worried about the entire industry. This crisis is profound and it remains to be seen whether all airlines and airports will still exist after this crisis has ended. Our problem is not only the lost income, but also our high fixed costs. As an airport, we have to keep almost everything permanently available from the fire brigade to the security check so that we can even fly. It is obvious that this is currently unsustainable.

The real question is whether the good old days will ever come back. Have you calculated the percentage by which business trips could decrease permanently?

We don’t expect Berlin to return to pre-crisis levels until 2024, i.e. around 36 million passengers per year. By then, the proportion of private travel will probably have increased – and the proportion of business travel will have decreased. Because there are significant changes in the business travel segment, which, by the way, began before Corona.

“The Federal Ministry of Transport prefers southern Germany,” says Lütke Daldrup. (Source: dpa)

Berlin has long dreamed of becoming an international hub. Because there are traditionally fewer business trips here than in Frankfurt or Munich, for example: Are you developing into a hub for private travel?

At least we will have the infrastructure for it from November. It has not been the case before. We had to improvise a lot in Tegel. And the transfer didn’t work that well there.

Does any airline want to develop Berlin into their hub at all?

As for the major European providers, I am skeptical. They all already have their hubs. And the low-cost airlines have a different model of direct point-to-point connections.

What then remains as hope?

We have very good connections within Germany and Europe. We want to use this to establish more intercontinental flights. The fact that travelers then have to change the airline in case of doubt is not an obstacle in view of the advances in digitalization. With our new product “ViaBER” we support the transfer, also with luggage.

Where will there be more flights to begin with: to China or the USA?

Hopefully to both destinations. The problem with China is not the lack of a market, but the limited traffic rights. We would like to offer more flights, but these are limited to five per week. There is great demand, for example for a connection to Shanghai. The same goes for the Middle East. Emirates would like to fly to Berlin, even in Corona times, but is not allowed to. In view of these restrictions, we feel rightly disadvantaged. Such a poor intercontinental connection is not worthy of the German capital.

However, your predecessors complained about this years ago. Is there any movement?

No. The Federal Ministry of Transport prefers the southern German area.

Andreas Scheuer and his predecessors would reject that.

It may be, but it is so. Fortunately, there is increasing pressure from business that it is not acceptable to continue to depend on intercontinental traffic for the whole of Eastern Germany. Ultimately, Germany needs three international airports: Frankfurt, Munich – and Berlin.

Have you already said that to Andreas Scheuer so clearly?

Naturally. I tell him regularly that we as an airport have done our homework and that the infrastructure is in place. And I also remind the Minister of the words of the Chancellor who said on a visit to the United Arab Emirates: When the Berlin airport is ready, there will also be appropriate flight rights. I expect the Federal Minister of Transport to keep this promise.

Not far from BER, Tesla will open a Gigafactory next year, which will probably be built even faster than the corresponding plant in Shanghai. What is going better at the Gigafactory than at your airport?

Can I give you two examples?

You’re welcome.

When I was city planning officer in Leipzig between 1995 and 2005, we set up a large BMW plant there. It opened a little faster than the Gigafactory in Grünheide. With this note I don’t mean to diminish the performance of Tesla and Brandenburg.

And the second example?

Munich Airport went online in 1992. Do you know when the first plans were made?

Probably as early as the 1970s.

Nearly. The project started in the early 1960s. What I mean by that: Every project has its own story. And airports are particularly complex and often controversial in the neighborhood. Therefore, one should not compare the construction time of the Tesla Gigafactory with the BER. Not even if we had opened in 2012 as planned.

That is not our point at all. We would just like to know what we can basically learn from Tesla in Grünheide and BMW in Leipzig in larger construction projects.

Our problem in Europe is that we now have such complex planning processes that our building speed is no longer even remotely internationally competitive. Nobody wants conditions where the state builds without caring about the affected citizens or the environment. But we could be a lot more efficient.

But how?

There will only be faster planning processes if we do not keep upgrading standards and rules, but instead conduct real disarmament negotiations.

You are not the first to ask. Little has happened so far.

That is why I am calling for us to address the problem in a more fundamental way. That means: We have to separate the entire detailed technical planning of a major project from the fundamental decision as to whether it should be implemented.

You need to explain that in more detail.

Take Switzerland. There, the people decide whether the Gotthard tunnel should be built. That is the fundamental decision. If it is answered in the affirmative, the experts start with the detailed technical planning. With us, however, everything is connected. And the fundamental decision as to whether a new ICE line will be built is only made when the last detail of the last square centimeter of the noise protection wall has been clarified. And when in doubt, someone will complain through all the instances and you have to start all over again.

Lütke Daldrup: Lütke Daldrup: “I could actually use a little vacation again” (source: dpa)

So we’re making it unnecessarily difficult for ourselves?

Yes. And we have a system where everyone can maximize their sectoral interest, although large projects are often about issues of the common good.

Are you demanding that the Germans also vote on major projects?

At Stuttgart 21, the referendum was very helpful, even if it came many years too late. But of course it is only one way of making a basic decision at an early stage. We can also take the legislative route. The main thing is that we finally accelerate the processes.

Can we then avoid that public buildings are almost always more expensive than planned?

That’s not true across the board. For example, the BER expansion terminal and the government terminal did not cost more than budgeted. We also completed Terminal 2 in a record construction time of two years.

But they are also much smaller than the main building.

The bigger a project, the more complex it is. And the greater the risks. But there are wrecked construction projects in both the public and private sectors. Think of the Elbphilharmonie, which was privately built. Or to some companies that got stuck with large projects such as a steel mill. The question is less who the client is, but how well a project has been planned and implemented.

Where is your first flight from BER going to?

I don’t know because I haven’t booked one yet.

Do you already have a goal in mind?

I could actually use a little vacation again.

Thank you for talking to us, Mr. Lütke Daldrup.


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