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Berlin's never-ending airport sagaBerlin's never-ending airport saga

Berlin, Germany, has endured ongoing airport dramas ever since World War II, and now comes a Reuters report that Berlin’s much-anticipated, 5.1 billion euro ($5.5 billion) brand-new airport—Berlin Brandenburg/Willy Brandt International Airport (EDDB)—may lose its construction permit before it’s completed. Construction of the airport and its 11,800- and 13,100-foot-long parallel runways began in 2006. The permit expires in 2016. Originally set for opening in 2010, then at three later dates, the airport is now due to open for business in 2017. This is only the latest in a series of epic setbacks.

The idea of a single airport serving Berlin had its origins in 1990, after the reunification of Germany. Then, Berlin had five airports—Tegel, RAF Gatow, Johannisthal, Tempelhof, and Schönefeld. Without the funds and political will to keep all of them operating, and with noise another big issue, the Berlin legislature decided to opt for a single, large airport to replace them.

RAF Gatow, a Royal Air Force Base that served as a British hub for the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, was turned over to the German Air Force in 1994, and air operations ended in 1995. Now it’s a housing site.

Johannisthal Airfield, Berlin’s oldest, began operations in 1909. It was used by the German military, but after reunification it was turned over to research firms and was officially closed in 1995.

Tempelhof, another historic airport, closed in 2008 after a failed referendum to keep it open. In the middle of the city, Tempelhof served as Berlin’s main airport from 1927 to 1940, and again from 1946 to the 1960s. After the war, a United States Army unit was based there. During the Berlin Airlift, Tempelhof was the main destination for American supplies.

Tegel, today Berlin’s principal international airport, also came into prominence during the Berlin Airlift. Then, it was run by the French Air Force and airlifted supplies were delivered to Tegel by British, French, and American airplanes. When jet airliners began service in the late 1950s, Tempelhof’s runways were too short to serve them, so Tegel assumed a greater prominence. A French air base remained until 1994. Tegel is to close simultaneously with the opening of the Brandenburg airport.

Schönefeld was used by the Soviet Air Force immediately after World War II, but then was converted to civilian use as East Germany’s main airport. Today, it adjoins Berlin Brandenburg’s construction site, and remains operational. The general aviation FBO at Schönefeld is ExecuJet GmbH.

Brandenburg’s first setback happened when the construction planning company declared bankruptcy. Then it was learned that the terminal’s fire protection system was not built to code. The airport is taking so long to complete that new homes were built too nearby in the meantime. The inhabitants of two nearby villages had to be relocated. Noise studies mandated that soundproofing be installed on new dwellings along projected flight paths—the number of which had to be reduced after a court decree. And other infrastructure issues—rerouting the ramps and roadways serving Schönefeld so they would access Brandenburg—also conspired to delay the project. Another delay will no doubt come when Tegel is closed and all the airline and airport facilities are moved from there to Brandenburg. That’s a process that should take two days, authorities say. But at this point no one’s buying it. After all, moving plans had been canceled before.

The Reuters report cited the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag as saying any further delays could have “dramatic consequences,” and cited internal documents. “If the building is not completed by then [November 23, 2016], the Berlin airport will remain an abandoned unfinished eyesore,” the newspaper said.

All of this has been a monumental embarrassment to the traditionally punctual and efficient Germans, to say the least. Meanwhile, Tegel’s popularity grows. It’s a cozy, retro-looking airport compared to the sterile behemoths of Frankfurt and Munich. And it’s only a short ride from the city center. Brandenburg is at the far southeast, outside city limits and a big, expensive cab ride away.

Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
Topics: Airport, Travel, Flight School

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