The closure of Berlin's Tempelhof Airport later this year should have been a done deal. But now that a public petition against the decision has been successful, the Berlin government might have to hold a referedum.
Passengers entering Tempelhof are transported back in time
The people of Berlin have long been saying that they don't want to see Tempelhof completely closed down. According to surveys conducted by local media at the time of the court ruling on the airport's future last year, around 75 percent of Berliners want the airport to remain open, with only 22 percent in favor of a complete shut-down. Around 40 percent of residents said they would like to see the airport maintain some sort of business, for example in business or medical flights.
And when the head of the Berlin CDU, Friedbert Pflüger, called on Berliners to sign a protest petition aimed at forcing the government to reverse its decision, they duly did so.
By Thursday, Jan. 31, the petition had received a total of 170,000 signatures -- which, a fortnight before the Feb. 14 deadline, is enough to justify a referendum.
The city's Social Democratic mayor, Klaus Wowereit, recently said that the petition would not cause the government to rethink Tempelhof's closure. Experts agree that a referendum would not be legally binding and could not force the government to change its plans.
This has prompted indignation from other local politicians who insist that a successful petition would leave the Berlin city government duty bound to keep Tempelhof open -- at least until the city's new main airport, Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI), is completed.
June 1948 saw the beginning of Tempelhof's glory days -- the Berlin Airlift, which lasted almost a year
Though still operational, Tempelhof, Berlin's inner-city airport already has the aura of a ghost town. Its Nazi-era architecture looms large at the southern edge of the city's center. And in the expansive entrance hall -- with its imposing columns and polished floor -- visitors can conjure up images of nearly forgotten days, when aviation was thrilling and heroic, and travelers dressed accordingly in their smartest clothes.
Heroism was at its most evident at Tempelhof during the tense months of the Berlin airlift, when Allied pilots flew in food and supplies to sustain the population of West Berlin when the Soviets blockaded the enclave in 1948.
Nowadays, the airport handles a handful of domestic flights as well as a shuttle to Brussels -- but even this modest business is due to cease in October when Tempelhof will close for good. The airport is to be replaced by the new BBI that's being developed on the site currently occupied by Schönefeld Airport on Berlin's eastern outskirts.
Minister reopens debate
Tempelhof is one of the best known examples of Nazi-era architecture
In the year that has passed since a local court rejected a bid to prevent Tempelhof's closure, it seemed that local politicians had accepted the airport's fate.
But in a testament to Tempelhof's emotional tug on Berliners' hearts, debate about its future was once again been stirred up, this time by Ulrich Junghanns, economics minister for the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) in the neighboring state of Brandenburg.
He publicly wondered whether, after the closing date, small business flights might still be permitted to fly in and out of Tempelhof. Surely that wouldn't compete in any meaningful way with business at the city's new international airport? And besides, Junghanns continued, the government has ignored the question of what should happen to Tempelhof after October 2008. That's a question, he said, that deserves to be discussed publicly.
The minister's comments reignited what was an extremely heated debate between Berlin's opposition CDU and the coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Left Party members. The CDU accused the coalition of "ignorance in destroying a valuable city asset -- one with enormous economic potential."
The SPD, however, maintains that the complete closure of Tempelhof is necessary if the BBI project is to succeed. Brandenburg's former Social Democratic state premier, Manfred Stolpe, reacted to Junghanns' comments saying: "If we want BBI, then we can't afford to play these games."
Foreign investors have already begun making proposals for future uses of the airstrip
The CDU is already thinking of alternative uses for the historic airstrip, including proposals by foreign investors to turn it into an international health center with affiliated airport landing facilities. Pflüger said these plans would be worth 350 million euros ($520 million) to the city and create more than 1,000 new jobs.
Proving that the airport could be re-tasked for any number of high-profile events, Tempelhof is currently serving as one of the main catwalks at the 2008 Berlin Fashion Week.
"You can only do this sort of thing in Berlin," Phillip Wolff, Hugo Boss communications chief, told fashion reporters. "What other city would let you take over a major airport for a fashion show?"