New chief Berlin Airport Hits Reset, Again

In the next chapter of Berlin's unfinished airport saga, a former Rolls-Royce executive with no experience of managing an airport will now head the troubled project.
Can this man sort out the mess that is Berlin's almost-airport?

Karsten Mühlenfeld isn't afraid of much. But skeptics worry the future boss of the long-delayed Berlin airport may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Mr. Mühlenfeld, a native of Berlin, who has spent most of his career with British jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, was elected as the new chief of the airport on Friday by a majority of the board members.

His task is to ensure that the airport will be ready to open in the second half of 2017.

Mr. Mühlenfeld is the third person to take this position since construction began.

His appointment was anything but a unanimous decision by the BER airport partners but followed a power struggle between majority shareholders, the city-state of Berlin and the state of Brandenburg, on the one hand and the minority shareholder, the German federal government, on the other.

Mr. Mühlenfeld is a low-key manager, who by his own admission doesn’t like crowds, but prefers quiet discussions in small groups.

The winners were Berlin’s mayor, Michael Müller, and Brandenburg’s state premier, Dietmar Woidke, both of whom are members of the center-left Social Democratic Party.

Federal Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the center-right Christian Social Union, voted against Mr. Mühlenfeld's appointment.

The difficulty in reaching an agreement does not bode well for the airport south of Berlin.

Mr. Mühlenfeld admitted it would have been better if all the parties involved had voted for him. “That would've felt better,” he said, adding that in the end, everything will work out.

“In the long term, it will surely be possible to build a good working relationship with the federal government. It's a great challenge to be allowed to finish this airport and be able to show what I'm capable of doing.”

Mr. Mühlenfeld was most recently general manager of Rolls-Royce Deutschland in Brandenburg. He replaces Hartmut Mehdorn, who announced he would step down no later than June 30, 2015 after ongoing disputes with the shareholders and supervisory board.

Mr. Mühlenfeld believes he can manage this political project and navigate the discord between the three shareholders. His predecessor, Mr. Mehdorn, failed to do so despite his experience with public enterprises as former head of Deutsche Bahn, the railway service owned by the government.

While Mr. Mehrdorn didn’t shy away from confrontation with shareholders, Mr. Mühlenfeld is a more low-key manager, who by his own admission prefers quiet discussions to crowds. That approach may help him when dealing with the owners burned by the many setbacks to the airport. However, he will still have to answer several special committees.




Mr. Mühlenfeld’s strengths as an engineer may be less in demand. He can rely on former Siemens executive, Jörg Marks, who joined the capital city’s airport project in 2014 at the invitation of Mr. Mehdorn. Mr. Marks is believed to be solving the technical problems at the building site slowly but surely.

When exactly Mr. Mühlenfeld will take charge of the huge construction challenge has not been determined. He must first end his contract with rail transport manufacturer Bombardier, where he had just recently been made head of development for Central and Eastern Europe.

Some observers have expressed concern that Mr. Mühlenfeld's new job comes soon after his previous change. Last fall, Mr. Mühlenfeld gave no hint of being a manager on the move. In his interview with the Brandenburg Economic Development Board, he said things were going well at the Rolls-Royce plant and described the creation of a new test station for large jet engines.

It’s surprising that he announced he would step down in January, but didn’t talk about his joining, or not joining, Bombardier. Mr. Mühlenfeld was quoted as saying that after 20 years in the aviation industry, he sought a new challenge. It’s still aviation related, but he has no experience in the construction or the management of airports.

Nonetheless, he didn’t take long to decide to accept the BER job when it was offered. “It is important to me that the region moves forward,” he said.


Silke Kersting covers the construction, consumer and environmental sectors from Berlin. To contact: [email protected].