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Germany

Court to Rule on Controversial Plan for new Berlin Airport

A German court has begun hearing complaints from thousands of residents opposed to plans for a new international airport in Berlin.

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"Main Airport Schönefeld -- No," reads the sign of this protestor

In what's the biggest legal challenge ever handled by Germany's administrative court in Leipzig, some 4,000 complaints against the new airport have been filed by residents and entire communities and have already led to a temporary injunction stopping building on the site.

The 1.7-billion-euro ($2-billion) project would see former East Berlin's Schönefeld airport expanded into a state-of-the-art international hub by 2011, making the city's more centrally located Tegel and Tempelhof airports obsolete.

But nearby residents, like Klaus and Barbara Simon, are already struggling to cope with the noise from the existing airport at Berlin-Schönefeld on the southeast edge of the city.

Flughafen Berlin-Schönefeld

So far, Schönefeld remains a provincial airport

At the moment, about three planes pass over their home every hour. They are afraid that the volume of traffic will soar if the new Berlin airport is built. Even their extra thick windows wouldn't provide them with enough protection, Barbara Simon said.

"We've been living here for quite some time and we actually wanted to grow old in this house," she said. "Now that seems to become impossible with this level of noise that makes us all sick. But we are determined to fight back."

Court to review model complai n ts

That's why the Simons have filed a suit against the airport -- together with about 4,000 of their neighbors from five villages situated near the building site. Over the next two weeks, Germany's highest administrative court will hear about 120 of them, chosen as representative of the various issues.

Skizze Großflughafen Berlin Brandenburg International

A blueprint of the proposed airport

"The building plan alone comprises several thousand pages," said Eckehard Thien, the court's president. "Not to mention the numerous files attached to it. In addition, there is a series of surveys that have been made on various aspects of the project. So this is really going to become a complex matter."

But the plaintiffs have already recorded one small victory. For the past year, a court injunction has stopped building work because the airport planners failed to give due respect to peoples' concerns.

Project plagued by delays

It's yet another delay for the project, which has been in planning for the past 14 years. Its supporters argue that the capital Berlin is a top attraction for visitors. About 15 million guests came here last year alone which is a new record.

Flughafen Tempelhof in Berlin Empfangshallle

Berlin's Nazi-era Tempelhof airport was meant to be closed years ago, but is still in operation

More than 22 million passengers are expected for the near future. But Berlin's Tegel airport is overcrowded and there is no space to extend it. And the legendary Tempelhof airport near the center of the city has been running up huge losses in recent years.

Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit is convinced that there is no alternative to building a large airport on the outskirts of the city.

"We've been trying to strike a balance between the interests of the local residents and the public interest in building such a big new infrastructure project," he said. "The new airport will not only provide better connections to the rest of the world, but it'll also create up to 40 thousand new jobs."

Klaus and Barbara Simon said they appreciate these arguments. But they can't understand why the international airport has to be built near them. They are now hoping to persuade the judges of the merits of their case in order to preserve what they see as an idyllic part of Germany.

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