Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 16:12 UK

Judgement day for Berlin airport

By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

"Tempelhof is the pearl of the German capital," says Klaus Eisermann.

The so-called Candy Bomber plane
Many Berliners feel strong nostalgia for Tempelhof airport

He has been working at Tempelhof airport for the last 44 years, and he knows every nook and cranny.

As he drives me around the vast airfield, the monolithic terminal building stretches out in front of us.

It is claimed that there are only two other buildings in the world bigger than Tempelhof - the Pentagon, and Ceausescu's palace in Bucharest.

"I'm really sad that they're going to shut down Tempelhof," says Mr Eisermann.

"It's such an easy airport to use and you can reach the city centre in 20 minutes - it's so simple and it's a beautiful historic building."

"Tempelhof survived World War II, it kept Berliners fed during the Soviet blockade of the city, but the authorities want to get rid of it. I can't understand it. It's a political decision which doesn't make any sense," he says.


On Sunday, Berliners will be able to give their verdict on the planned closure of Tempelhof airport. The referendum has become such a divisive issue that a big turnout is expected.

Back in the terminal, as we pass through the security checkpoint, several officials hastily stand up to meet us. They had been sitting huddled in a corner, chatting about football.

The departure lounge
The empty snack-bar, the solitary cleaning lady who dashes up the stairs, the retro clock - the whole place seems to exude an air of nostalgia

On average, one plane lands or takes off from Tempelhof each hour, so there is no rush-hour.

Apart from private jets, only a few commercial airlines operate from the airport.

Inside the tall departure hall, there is one thing that strikes you immediately - it is very quiet.

There is the occasional announcement for a flight, and the odd tour guide showing a group around, but that is about it.

I have travelled a lot, but I do not think I have ever been to such a peaceful airport, especially not in a major European capital.

But that is what makes Tempelhof so charming.

The empty snack bar, the solitary cleaning lady who dashes up the stairs, the retro clock - the whole place seems to exude an air of nostalgia.

Tempelhof is Germany's oldest commercial airport.

Originally built in 1923, it was later extended by the Nazis.

Symbolic site

During the Cold War, from June 1948, Allied aircraft landed at Tempelhof, delivering thousands of tonnes of food and supplies to the residents of West Berlin, which had been cut off by the Soviet Union.

The clock and airport restaurant
Time seems to be standing still at Tempelhof airport

The crisis started on 24 June 1948, when Soviet forces in the eastern zone blocked Allied rail and road access to the western sectors of Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift was one of the biggest humanitarian air relief missions in history.

"The Airlift is one of the most important events in Berlin's post-war history," says Michael Cullen, a historian.

"For West Berliners in particular, Tempelhof is a powerful symbol. Planes were landing here, one every minute, bringing coal, food and potatoes to Berliners, keeping the city alive," he says.

Berliners feel passionately about this airport and campaigners are determined to keep it open. Referendum posters have gone up all over the city, urging people to vote on Sunday.

Diverse coalition

The "no" camp, comprising environmental activists and some local residents, is pitted against a disparate bunch of business leaders, pilots, historians and artists, who make up the "Save Tempelhof" camp.

British personnel involved in Berlin Airlift, 1948 (file pic)
A huge fleet of planes supplied West Berlin in 1948

"We lost all court cases, so we decided to go for a referendum. We are very confident that we will get a positive vote, in support of keeping Tempelhof open," says Andreas Peter, the head of the Save Tempelhof Airport Association.

"Business travellers and lots of other people rely on this airport. There's a check-in time of 10 minutes and you don't have to walk far to get to your plane.

"People have talked Tempelhof dead over the last decade. A cloud has been hanging over the future of the airport, so it's not surprising that it's often empty now," Mr Peter explains.

"We have already drawn up a development plan if the airport stays open. Tempelhof could be a success story," he adds.

But the Berlin government is digging in its heels.


The city authorities are adamant that Tempelhof has to close, to make way for a new international airport, Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI), on the outskirts of the city. It is due to open in 2011.

But critics argue that the new airport is way behind schedule and they claim that Berlin needs all its airports, including Tegel and Tempelhof, to cope with rising passenger numbers.

"This is not a question of money, it is a legal requirement. We have to close Tempelhof," Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, the Berlin senator in charge of town planning, told the BBC.

The airfield
The airport has none of the bustle and stress of its modern counterparts

"We are building a new airport near Berlin, at the site of the current airport in Schoenefeld, and this will shape the future economic development of the whole region.

"We have to prove that the impact on the environment is limited, that levels of air and noise pollution are not excessive, so we have to make sure that people in the city centre are not affected by this."

Ironically, Frau Junge-Reyer was recently seen at Tempelhof boarding a flight.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the Berlin authorities could simply choose to ignore it and close the airport, as planned.

It is a non-binding referendum and the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, has repeatedly said that the Berlin government will not be bound by the result.

Mr Wowereit declined the BBC's request for an interview to explain his reasoning.

Secret plan?

But other politicians have urged the Berlin authorities to accept the outcome of the referendum.

"The Berlin government must respect the result," says Gregor Gysi, the leader of the Left Party.

Judging from the huge groundswell of opinion in favour of Tempelhof, if the city authorities choose to disregard the referendum, it is bound to be an unpopular decision.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has also waded into the row. She said she would prefer Tempelhof airport to stay open.

"For many people, and for me personally, this airport, with the airlift, is a symbol of the city's history," Mrs Merkel told the newspaper BZ.

So what will happen to Tempelhof if the authorities shut it down?

The Nazi-era building is listed, so it cannot be torn down.

The Berlin authorities say it could be turned into a museum, or an exhibition dedicated to the Airlift.

Ron Lauder, the US cosmetics millionaire, was keen to turn the airport into a luxury clinic, but his plan was rejected.

Berlin officials say the airfield could be turned into a park, or a new property development - another building site for the German capital.

The fact is, though, no-one really has a clear idea about the future use of Tempelhof. Or does the mayor of Berlin have a secret plan up his sleeve?


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