Former German railway CEO taking over Berlin's new airport amid huge delays in opening new hub

BERLIN – A hard-nosed manager with a history of overseeing corporate turnarounds was named Friday as the new CEO of Berlin’s airports, putting him in charge of completing the capital’s new hub after a string of embarrassing delays.

Harmut Mehdorn, 70, formerly headed Germany’s national railway and its second-biggest airline. He takes over from Rainer Schwarz, who was fired in January shortly after the opening of the new airport was delayed for the fourth time — and the third in less than a year.

The delays have turned into a national joke. The airport was first scheduled to open in late 2011; officials decided in January not to set a new date, but say it may now take until 2015 to get it ready. Planners and builders are struggling with technical problems, above all an elaborate fire safety system.

“We will do everything to speed up the completion of the airport,” said Mehdorn.

The new Willy Brandt airport is supposed to replace the city’s two aging and increasingly cramped airports, Tegel and Schoenefeld, which served West and East Berlin respectively during Germany’s Cold War division.

Mehdorn ran Germany’s national railway, Deutsche Bahn, from 1999 to 2009, and took the company into the black amid a drive to prepare it for a planned partial privatization. The government called off the privatization when the financial crisis struck in 2008 and hasn’t revived it.

From late 2011 until this January, Mehdorn served as interim CEO of Air Berlin, which has struggled in Europe’s highly competitive travel market. He cut routes and brought in Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways as a major shareholder. Last year, the airline made a small profit.

“The job that Mr. Mehdorn will take on is certainly a complex one,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Munich Friday.

“Berlin needs an airport, and so we must do everything to make sure that this airport is ready as soon as possible,” she said. “I can only wish luck to everyone working on this project.”