A Symbol Of Allied Solidarity Will Disappear. Berlin plans to shut down Tempelhof airport. By Ulrich Paul
During the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of Berlin, the American and British airlift was essential for getting food, fuel and other vital supplies to the beleaguered city. The "candy bombers" flew in and out of Tempelhof airport in the center of the western sector. Now the government plans to shut down the airport. It's a decision that doesn't sit well with many Berliners.
Max von Merveldt works in public relations for a large Berlin ad agency and he has nothing but praise for Tempelhof airport. "You can leave Potsdamer Platz a half-hour before your flight and still make it on time," he says. In fact, it's not even two miles from Potsdamer Platz, the new commercial center of Berlin, making it very attractive to businesspeople like von Merveldt. Those are the people who are most annoyed by the city airport authority's recent decision to shut down Tempelhof.
Ralf Kunkel, spokesman for the airport authority, explains the decision: "Tempelhof airport runs at a loss. So our goal is to close it." Since 1991, the airport has lost ?160 million ($202 million). In 2005 alone, the airport ran up a deficit of ?9 million ($11 million), with just 545,000 passengers using Tempelhof that year. In its heyday, 10 times that many people flew in and out of the airport annually. Most commercial air traffic these days goes through Tegel, in the north part of the city, or the former East German airport, Schönefeld, in the city's southeast quadrant.
Tempelhof airport opened on Oct. 8, 1923, on a former Prussian parade ground in the Berlin district of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, about two miles south of Brandenburg Gate. In the 1930s, Tempelhof become one of Europe's busiest airports. The people of Berlin could fly out of Tempelhof to places as far as Baghdad, Kabul and Bangkok.
In 1936, three years after the Nazis came to power, the airport was redesigned by architect Ernst Sagebiel and rebuilt in the form we see today. At the time, the massive structure was Europe's largest single building. The facade of the seven hangars is 4,035 feet long. From the air, the building is shaped like a clothes hanger. Even today, the building is one of Europe's largest, with a total indoor area of 1,007,217 square feet, and is protected under historic preservation guidelines. Perhaps the most breathtaking aspect of the building is the vast, high-ceilinged main terminal hall, which is 393 feet long and lined with massive pillars.
The aviation authorities have decreed that the last commercial flight will leave Tempelhof in October of next year. The federal government as well as the state governments of Berlin and Brandenburg support the decision. All three are shareholders in the Berlin airport authority. The plan is to completely remake the face of air traffic in the capital. If all goes according to plan, ultimately the city's three airports - Tempelhof, Tegel and Schönefeld - will be replaced by a single airport to be built near Schönefeld.
Ground was broken for the new Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BBI) in early September. It's slated for completion by 2011. Because the new airport will only be economically viable if it has no competition, the three governments decided as early as 1996 that Tegel and Tempelhof would have to be shut down. Tegel is scheduled to remain in operation until the new airport is finished.
The airlines that use Tempelhof are planning to oppose the airport closing. "We're going to take legal action," says Bernhard Liscutin, spokesman for the airlines' joint body. He says that neither Tegel nor Schönefeld has enough additional landing slots to accommodate the airlines forced out of Tempelhof. He also maintains that Tempelhof's losses are not a result of airline operations, but rather due to bad marketing of the vast commercial space available in the airport building.
Airport spokesman Kunkel denies this. The two sides will be taking the issue to court, meaning the final fate of Tempelhof will lie with the administrative court judges' verdict. That is, unless the federal and two state governments have a change of heart.
Proponents of keeping the airport open received a boost from comments made by two separate politicians just before Berlin's state elections on Sept. 17. Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced support for Tempelhof during a campaign rally for her Christian Democratic Party (CDU). However, she soon tempered her statement by saying she had spoken as the head of the CDU and not as chancellor. In response to her comments, Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) said he would consider keeping Tempelhof open if the federal government wanted to operate it as a government airport. The federal defense minister even said that option was under consideration and a decision would be made by the end of this year.
If the government agreed to use Tempelhof for government flights, it would remain in operation. But that seems unlikely. Political pundits have called all the recent statements "campaign sloganeering," since the resolution shutting down the airport remains in force.
Meanwhile, Tempelhof partisans are fighting on other fronts to keep the airport up and running. They've enlisted several high-profile supporters, among them Peter Eisenmann, the architect of Berlin's Holocaust Memorial, architect Axel Schultes, who designed the new chancellery building and Hanns Peter Nerger, the head of Berlin's tourism office. A lot of people have publicly wondered why Tempelhof is being closed down before the new airport is in operation, especially considering there are no firm plans for the future use of the buildings. Thomas Stillmann is head of the charter airline Windrose Air, which is headquartered at Tempelhof. "No other metropolis would give up an airport like this," he says. "On the contrary, other capitals - like London - look to Tempelhof as a model and build special airports for business traffic."
The debate over Tempelhof's fate is about more than just money. For many citizens of what was West Berlin, the airport evokes powerful emotions and memories. It is the ultimate symbol of the iron will to resist Soviet threats when Berlin was a divided city. During the Berlin Blockade from June 24, 1948, to May 12, 1949, Tempelhof was the center of the Berlin Airlift, when American and British planes supplied the two million Germans living in Berlin's three western sectors with food, fuel and medical supplies. At the height of the airlift, a "candy bomber" landed every 62 seconds, quickly unloading its supplies and taking off for another trip.
The airlift was dangerous business and 78 men died, most of them British or American pilots. A memorial to them and all the others who made the airlift possible was dedicated in 1951 in front of the airport. The 65-foot-high concrete sculpture has three curved prongs bending slightly to the west, symbolizing the three Allied air corridors that were the only access routes into West Berlin not under Soviet control. With typical brash Berlin affection, the people of the city call the monument the "jaws of hunger."
Berlin's senator for urban development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer (SPD) knows full well that the debate over closing Tempelhof can't be reduced to a simple monetary issue. "That airport is a piece of Berlin's history and we are emotionally attached to it," she says.
The Berlin airlift was not the only time Tempelhof was crucial to West Berlin. After Berlin was divided and the Berlin Wall was built, Tempelhof became the only route to freedom for many in the city's western sector. Until the 1971 Four Powers Agreement, West Berliners traveling overland to West Germany were often subjected to harassment by East German border guards. The only way to avoid the chicanery was to fly out. A total of 5.5 million passengers went through Tempelhof in 1971 alone. In 1974, most of the commercial air traffic moved to the new Tegel airport and Tempelhof quieted down. The only planes left in the hangars were U.S. air force machines.
There were, however, other planes landing at Tempelhof, although not strictly legitimately. A number of Polish people trying to escape communist Poland forced planes to land in Tempelhof. Between December 1980 and October 1983 alone, 11 Polish flights were hijacked to Tempelhof. Berlin's wags began saying that LOT, the Polish national airline, stood for "lands often at Tempelhof." But it was not until the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s that Tempelhof was officially opened to commercial traffic again.
But it was never a very busy airport. At 6,561 feet, the runway is too short for fully loaded, large planes such as the Boeing 737. The large jets require a runway at least 9,842 feet long, such as those at Tegel. So these days, it's mostly small planes that use Tempelhof, flying to domestic destinations like Saarbrücken or Dortmund or nearby cities like Copenhagen or Brussels.
Fewer and fewer airlines use Tempelhof. Most recently, dba announced that it will transfer operations from Tempelhof to Tegel on Nov. 1. That's a big blow to the smaller airport and its supporters, since dba was the largest airline to use Tempelhof. A member of the keep-Tempelhof lobby pointed out that, "it doesn't improve our chances."
For many people living near the airport, Tempelhof can't be shut down soon enough. "Inner city airports are an out-of-date concept," says Johannes Hauenstein, spokesman for a citizens' group. "They put not only residents in danger, but also flight crews and passengers." He points out that inner city airports are not close to any fields or open country where a plane could make an emergency landing if necessary. If worst came to worst, a plane could end up crash landing into residential buildings.
Exactly that happened on May 24, 2001. The pilot of a small Beechcraft was just able to radio "Mayday, motor is out, I come down" before crashing into a busy street under Tempelhof's approach path. By a near miracle, the plane crashed into an abandoned building, before falling onto a porch roof and burning. Nobody on the ground was hurt, but the pilot and his wife died in the accident. Hauenstein's group demands that Tempelhof be shut down on schedule.
The other open question is what will become of Tempelhof's buildings after flight operations are shut down. The city senate already has plans for the 494 acres of airfield. The plan is to turn it into a large public meadow. The runways would remain visible, but the concrete would be broken up and green areas would be planted. The city planners said they can even imagine putting up housing around the edges of the park, which already has a working title: Airlift Park.
- Ulrich Paul is an editor at the Berliner Zeitung.