The inspectors could hardly believe what they were seeing. Summoned from their headquarters near Munich, the team of logistics, safety, and aviation experts had arrived at newly constructed Berlin Brandenburg International Willy Brandt Airport in the fall of 2011 to begin a lengthy series of checks and approvals for the €600 million ($656 million) terminal on the outskirts of the German capital. Expected to open the following June, the airport, billed as Europe’s “most modern,” was intended to handle 27 million passengers a year and crown Berlin as the continent’s 21st century crossroads.
The team of inspectors, known as ORAT, for Operations Readiness and Airport Transfer, brought in a dummy plane and volunteers as test passengers. They examined everything from baggage carousels and security gates to the fire protection system. The last was an especially high priority: None could forget the 1996 fire that roared through Düsseldorf Airport’s passenger terminal, killing 17.
When they simulated a fire, though, the system went haywire. Some alarms failed to activate. Others indicated a fire, but in the wrong part of the terminal. The explanation was buried in the 55-mile tangle of wiring that had been laid, hastily, beneath the floors of the building where ORAT technicians soon discovered high-voltage power lines alongside data and heating cables—a fire hazard in its own right. That wasn’t all. Smoke evacuation canals designed to suck out smoke and replace it with fresh air failed to do either. In an actual fire, the inspectors determined, the main smoke vent might well implode.
Confronted with the fire system fiasco, Rainer Schwarz, chief executive officer of Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg (FBB), the airport company owned by the city of Berlin, the state of Brandenburg, and the federal government, downplayed it. Schwarz and his staff told the airport’s board of oversight, as well as Stephan Loge, the commissioner of Dahme-Spreewald County, who had the final authority to issue the airport an operating license, that they were working through some issues, but that the situation was under control. Schwarz also appointed an emergency task force to propose solutions that would allow the airport to open on time. In March 2012 the group submitted its stopgap: Eight hundred low-paid workers armed with cell phones would take up positions throughout the terminal. If anyone smelled smoke or saw a fire, he would alert the airport fire station and direct passengers toward the exits. Never mind that the region’s cell phone networks were notoriously unreliable, or that some students would be stationed near the smoke evacuation channels, where in a fire temperatures could reach 1,000F. […]