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Auf Wiedersehen, Tempelhof

Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

Protesters huddle under unbrellas
Some 500 protesters bade farewell to Tempelhof, fabled hub of the Berlin Airlift

Despite the cold, wet weather, up to 500 protesters gathered outside Tempelhof to vent their anger at the closure of the airport.

It was a last show of strength by campaigners who had fought a series of legal battles over the past decade to save Tempelhof.

Holding candles, they didn't seem too bothered by the cold or the police.

One man screamed, "If the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, has guts, then tell him to come out here."

The protesters say they won't give up.

"We still have a couple of legal challenges pending," said Rainer Classe, a campaigner. "We're also trying to get Tempelhof listed as a Unesco World Heritage site - the airport would finally get the recognition that it deserves."

Inside the massive terminal, the authorities had thrown a big party as a send-off for Tempelhof. The local TV channel RBB set up a large stage and the whole event was broadcast live.

But as hundreds of local VIPs, the mayor of Berlin and officials popped open the champagne bottles, it seemed odd that they were celebrating the closure of the airport.

'Really sad day'

All day long, curious Berliners came to Tempelhof to catch a glimpse of the airport. Many brought their cameras and they took pictures of the vast, echoing hall and the imposing architecture.

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Last flight departs from Tempelhof Airport

A few businessmen rushed to catch the last flights. For many people, Tempelhof was always the ideal inner-city airport - it used to serve short-haul commercial flights.

One passenger, Joerg said: "It's a really sad day. Tempelhof is special, there's so much history here. It's a mistake to shut it down.

"It's not like other modern airports, there's no stress here, it's lovely and relaxing. I love the nostalgic atmosphere here."

Pilots and crew members were also feeling sad and nostalgic.

One stewardess said: "I just can't believe it, it's such a shame that they're shutting the Tempelhof. It's part of German history and the authorities are closing it, why on earth are they doing this?", she asked.

"We used to fly out of Tempelhof, it's a great airport. Everything is accessible. The ways are short from the check-in desks to the gates and from the gates to the planes," said Alexander Rodger, the ground operations manager at the airline Germania.

"It's an awful decision to close Tempelhof. They didn't encourage airlines to use the airport and it's hardly surprising that it was running up losses."

Pilots pose inside Tempelhof airport
It's part of German history...why on earth are they doing this?
German stewardess

Glorious past

It's a far cry from the past. Tempelhof played a crucial role during the Berlin Airlift.

From June 1948, hundreds of Allied aircraft landed at Tempelhof. The planes dropped coal, food, medicine and other supplies to the residents of West Berlin, which had been cut off by the Soviet Union.

At the height of the airlift, one Allied aircraft landed at Tempelhof every 90 seconds. The Airlift was an extraordinary humanitarian operation and it kept people alive in West Berlin for 11 months until the Soviet Union ended the blockade.

As a reminder of the airport's rich history, an old "candy bomber" DC-3 took off from Tempelhof on Thursday night ("Candy bomber" was the name given to the crews who dropped sweets attached to parachutes to German children during the Airlift).

Uncertain future

So why is Tempelhof closing?

The Berlin government has always argued that the airport has run up huge losses. They claim that they have to shut Tempelhof to make way for a new airport at the site of Schoenefeld airport, south of Berlin.

The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BBI), is due to open in 2011.

"Tempelhof has been losing so much money, it made losses of 150 million euros over the past few years. We have to close it and we're also building a new international airport for Berlin at Schoenefeld," said Ralf Kunkel, a Berlin airport spokesman.

"Rosinenbomber" (candy bomber) at Tempelhof
An old "candy bomber" took off from Tempelhof on Thursday night
"It is a step towards the concentration of all air traffic at the new airport, BBI, and it's a step into the future," he said.

So what's going to happen to Tempelhof?

The sad truth is that no-one has a clue.

"It's up to the Berlin senate to find a solution for this old building and the airfield," Ralf Kunkel said.

But so far, the Berlin authorities haven't made any decision.

The building will be preserved because it's a listed property, yet there's no concrete plan.

Lots of ideas have been bandied about - there are plans to build a huge housing estate, a park, a museum, a film studio, a zoo or a football stadium.

Tempelhof airport, Berlin (file pic)

For now, it's Auf Wiedersehen Tempelhof. It really is the end of an era.

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