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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Germany reunified a little more than two decades ago. East and West came back together after the long division of the Cold War. And since the Wall came down, the country has spent billions to make the capital city of Berlin sparkle again. The crowning glory was to be a new airport. Planners bragged that it would turn Berlin into a global transportation hub. But the project has proved an embarrassment. There's been delay after delay and cost way over budget.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRAIN WHISTLE AND ANNOUNCEMENT)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: First-time travelers to the aging, Tegel Airport are often surprised to learn that it is the main gateway to the capital of Europe's financial powerhouse. One such traveler is Norwegian Torre Bergrren. He chats with a friend over a beer as they wait for their connecting flight.

TORRE BERGRREN: This is my first time in Berlin and been in this airport for an hour, so it's...

(LAUGHTER)

BERGRREN: It's not much of an impression to speak about.

NELSON: In fact, Tegel is the busier of two airports that currently serve Berlin, both of which are struggling to cope with the 70,000 passengers on average who fly to the city every day. These airports, and a third one that has since closed, were to be replaced with what the planners bragged would be Europe's most modern Airport. Instead, the Willie Brandt Airport in Berlin has become Germany's most embarrassing project.

Nearly two billion euros in cost overruns, poor planning and safety concerns have prevented the airport - named for a former German chancellor and Nobel laureate - from opening three times in the past 12 months. Some here joke that the airport won't be ready until 2024, when Berlin's mayor hopes to host the Olympics here.

German television network ZDF played this satirical song about the airport on its morning magazine show.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

NELSON: Using this line from Ronald Reagan's famous speech against the Berlin Wall....

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Open, this gate...

NELSON: ...the German singer quips that residents should be proud that the airport holds the record for being the quietest.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

NELSON: But to many, the Willy Brandt Airport debacle is no laughing matter. Some officials estimate German taxpayers will be paying for the mistakes for at least two decades.

Airlines that service the capital have also lost millions of euros because of the delays, prompting Air Berlin to file a lawsuit against airport officials last month. Other carriers, like Lufthansa, are also contemplating legal action.

THOMAS KROPP: It was quite painful.

NELSON: That's Lufthansa Senior Vice-President Thomas Kropp.

KROPP: We have thousands of workforce involved. We had some complications. We are also discussing about re-compensation with the airport.

NELSON: He adds that he hopes Willy Brandt Airport will open next October as currently planned. City officials are scrambling to meet that deadline. They've fired the project's chief engineer and architect and plan to resume construction this month. A local parliamentary committee, headed by Martin Delius, is also investigating the project.

MARTIN DELIUS: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says the mismanagement his team has uncovered thus far is shocking; adding all they can do is try to minimize the damage.

DELIUS: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says the airport is a huge blow to Germany's reputation when it comes to precision engineering and management.

Aviation analyst Cathryn Buyck, reached by phone in Brussels, says such projects are well-known for their delays and that Berlin air travel won't suffer for it.

CATHRYN BUYCK: Well, I think the aviation industry is used to cope with adverse circumstances all the time. There are storms. There are wars. There are floods. The airline industry is a very flexible and adaptable industry.

NELSON: Buyck adds that she believes Berlin's other airports can manage the airplane and passenger load through next October.

Willy Brandt Airport spokesman Lars Wagner agrees with her assessment.

LARS WAGNER: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But he dismisses questions on what could have been done to avoid the problems in the first place. He says, what's important now for us is to look ahead.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

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