Breaking the big (1). The Berlin Brandenburg Airport

According to a study by Oxford University's Saïd Business School, 44-50% of infrastructure projects run over budget; shocking, isn't it? Wait till hearing the time overrun. It is 65% based on a McKinsey & Company research study that studied 100 infrastructure projects worldwide.

Breaking the big (1). The Berlin Brandenburg Airport

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

Benjamin Franklin

I am sure you have -at least once- seen the construction of an infrastructure project such as a bridge, road, crossing or railway. After years of passing by them, did you ask yourself why those projects take so long to be built? If yes, this series of articles is for you.

Unfortunately, delays are common for infrastructure projects. According to a study by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, 44%-50% of such projects run over budget; shocking, isn’t it? The time overrun is 65% based on a McKinsey & Company research study that studied 100 infrastructure projects worldwide.

The list goes on and on for the infrastructure project. Still, the interesting part is even after publishing those studies; infrastructure projects still face massive delays in time and budget.

Project management is my passion & profession; I started to gather information, articles, books and research to find patterns that lead most, if not all, infrastructure projects to run over the set time and budget targets.

In this article and the series of coming articles, I will take you through some case studies of major infrastructure projects to stand on the root cause of delay and how it was corrected and relate those causes to project management principles.

The Berlin Brandenburg Airport

Our nominee for today is The Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) project.

Berlin City

What went so wrong with the airport? “The supervisory board was full of politicians who had no idea how to supervise the project”

Prof Genia Kostka, of the Free University of Berlin

Quick history:

The Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) was a major project designed to modernize the city’s transportation infrastructure (aging Tegel Airport and Schönefeld Airport) and meet the growing demand for air travel. Initially proposed in 1996, design began in 2003, and construction began in 2006 with a planned opening date of 2011. The airport was designed to be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly, focusing on reducing carbon emissions and noise pollution. The design also included advanced technology, such as automated baggage handling, and a focus on providing a modern and comfortable passenger experience with an expectation to host 27 million passengers per year.

However, due to numerous delays and cost overruns, the airport finally opened its doors on October 31st, 2020, this means 9 years over the planned time and the total cost of the project was €6.5 billion, significantly higher than the initial estimate of €2.8 billion. Despite its troubled past, BER is now one of the most modern airports in Europe and serves as an important hub for air travel in the region.

“no politician, no airport director and no person who is not dependent on medication will give you solid guarantees for this airport.”

Airport spokesman Daniel Abbou

Top 5 causes of delay :

The Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) project is an example of how unforeseen delays and complications can hamper ambition. Here are the top 5 reasons for the delay:

  1. Technical problems with the fire protection and fire safety system
  2. Bureaucratic issues for approvals and permits
  3. Construction defects and quality issues
  4. Coordination issues
  5. Political interference

But what were the root causes of each one? And how the airport management solved them in the end?

“The project was an ideal way to learn how not to do things”

Bent Flyvbjerg. Global infrastructre expert

1- Technical problems with the fire protection and fire safety system:

The root cause: of the technical problems with the firewalls and fire protection system was due to poor planning and coordination during the design and construction phases. The fire safety system was complex, and there were numerous problems with the system’s design, installation, testing, and commissioning. The original design was flawed, and there were delays in the procurement of the necessary equipment and materials.

To address the technical problems, the airport management team thoroughly reviewed the fire safety system and implemented a new system that meets all regulatory requirements. They also improved coordination among the various contractors and suppliers involved in the system’s installation and commissioning.

2- Bureaucratic issues:

The root cause of the bureaucratic issues was the complex and overlapping regulatory requirements and approvals that the airport had to comply with. The project was subject to numerous regulations and requirements from various government agencies, which led to delays in approvals and permits.

To address the bureaucratic issues, the airport management team worked closely with the relevant government agencies to streamline the approval process and reduce red tape. They also implemented a more transparent and accountable system of governance for the airport.

3- Construction defects and quality issues:

The root cause of the construction defects and quality issues was poor quality control and inadequate supervision during construction. The construction had numerous defects and quality issues, including problems with the roof, air conditioning, and escalators.

To address these issues, the airport management team thoroughly reviewed the construction quality and addressed any defects. They also implemented a more robust quality control system and improved supervision and coordination among the various contractors involved in the project.

4- Coordination issues:

The root cause of the coordination issues was the airport project’s complex and decentralized management structure. The project involved numerous stakeholders, including government agencies, contractors, and suppliers, which led to coordination issues and misunderstandings.

To address the coordination issues, the airport management team reorganized the management structure of the airport to improve coordination and oversight. They also implemented more regular communication and coordination meetings among the various stakeholders involved in the project.

5- Political interference:

The root cause of the political interference was changing political priorities and government reshuffling. The airport project was subject to political pressure, and there were several changes in government leadership during the project’s implementation. This led to changes in priorities and delays in decision-making.

To address the political interference, the airport management team worked closely with the relevant government agencies to ensure continuity and stability in the project’s implementation. They also implemented more transparent and accountable systems of governance for the airport.

Analyzing the causes from project management principles perspective?

The root causes of these delays were multifaceted, but the important fact is that managing a complex project like BER, starts from the owner and then should be cascaded down to contractors. The airport management had clear shortfalls in some areas, which can be linked to several principles of effective project management.

1- The Initiating and planning phase were not done properly to understand the governmental requirements, secure the funds, understand the architectural concept, secure the political buy-in, plan the contract structure and required resources, understand the type of permits and approval and the size of program management that required.

2- There was no clarity regarding the technical requirements & scope for fire & life safety. In addition, making big and fundamental changes to the scope after construction started. There was no matrix to map the different authorities’ requirements, scope changes and the impact of the change. This chaotic, unorganized way led to the creep of requirements, incorrect design and shortfall in delivery.

3- The leadership and management structure was ineffective in managing the project’s size and the stakeholders. People made the decisions with no experience in leading in such complexity. Such kind of project should be considered a program and divided into multi-sections with independent management and authority who executed similar projects and linked to a higher committee. Although part of this was done, it was not executed well for decision-making.

4- Stakeholders management was not done effectively, especially from the political awareness. The airport could partner with Engineering authorities to help spread awareness and influence the decision-making process for the best of the project.

5- The supply chain management and the choice of contractors lacked a deep look at their quality procedures and quality control

In conclusion,

The problems that faced BER from a pure project management perspective were not about the project’s technical complexity or being a new innovation (without underestimating the state-of-art of the airport) but more about under-estimating the complexity of coordination, stakeholders and political issues. In addition, there has been a lack of planning, direction and leadership since the beginning from the contractor and owner side.