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Berlin should hold on to its unique Tegel airport

Deutsche Welle Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks
November 6, 2020

Once Tegel airport is gone, so will be the dream of an inner-city portal that brought millions of people to Berlin each year. What's left will be memories of its unique futuristic features, says DW's Timothy Rooks.

The tower at Tegel airport, Berlin (Timothy A. Rooks)
Image: Timothy Rooks/DW

Berlin's Tegel airport is an utter disgrace. To land or take off there is to be jammed into tiny quarters or shuttled back and forth on buses to waiting planes because there are not enough gates or jetways. Not much has been updated in decades and only the bare minimum of upkeep has been done on the 46-year-old building.

Yet with all its faults, it is the ultimate in "form following function" and many Berliners and millions of travelers from around the world just love the place. It is the biggest tiniest airport in the world and simply charming.

Just like Berlin, it is also gritty with big ambitions. It is a no-nonsense airport built on a human scale, which is why its replacement and closure on November 8 has been met with a lot of sorrow and is making headlines.

Changing the definition of an airport

Tegel airport, or at least its original hexagon central building complex, is everything an airport is not supposed to be today. It was designed with creative solutions where efficiency didn't seem to matter. It is physically decentralized in an uneconomical way and a dream for passengers. Its hallways were not made to save on personnel costs or to quickly push flyers through and hope travelers would stock up on duty-free goods.

Planned for only 2.5 million passengers, last year Tegel handled 24 million flyers
Planned for only 2.5 million passengers, last year Tegel handled 24 million flyersImage: Ralf Hirschberger/dpa/picture alliance

Built for tiny West Berlin, each of the original 14 gates is self-sustaining with its own check-in, security, customs and luggage belt. Customs agents, security staff and police had to move from gate to gate as needed. Airport employees could often be seen in the corridor carrying their passport stamps and coffee thermos going to meet the next plane.

Tegel airport, the underground parking garage corresponds with the 16 check-in desks (Timothy A. Rooks)
The underground parking garage corresponds with the 16 check-in desks Image: Timothy Rooks/DW

The list of why Tegel doesn't work anymore is long: too many passengers, noise and air pollution levels for neighbors, the danger of flying over heavily populated areas, no direct rail or subway connection, increased security and the difficulty of changing planes without a transit zone.

Some of these problems were by design. Yet many of the problems are down to Berlin's lack of foresightedness and willingness to spend money to do something properly. And though seeing the underbelly of a huge jet while walking on the tarmac to a plane may be fun the first time, doing it in the rain or snow gets old fast. But at what other major airport can passengers be sitting in a taxi five or 10 minutes after landing?

Living on borrowed time

First opened in 1974, Tegel was one of two West Berlin airports. It takes less than 20 minutes to cover the 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) from the airport to the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of the city. For the people in Berlin it was a gateway out of the enclave; a way to avoid the ever-present Soviet and East German regimes.

Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg created the original building and designed the landscaping, interiors and furniture
Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg created the original building and designed the landscaping, interiors and furnitureImage: Gönna Ketels/DW

After reunification it was decided that the new capital needed a big, representative airport. Soon an agreement was reached: The new airport was coming and the existing airports would close.

Work on Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) began in 2006 and was scheduled to finish by 2011. Tempelhof, West Berlin's other airport, closed in 2008. By November 2011 Tegel would be history, too. But the new airport was delayed by nine years.

A referendum to keep Tegel open was widely approved, but the government would not budge. Berlin would have only one airport. But why? If the city really wants to play in the big league, one airport will not do. London, New York, Paris and even Rome have more than one airport. Dreams of creating a major hub like Frankfurt, Amsterdam or London were never on the table. Berlin was way too late to that party. 

In the interim, Tegel was living on borrowed time, no investments were made and fans have been saying goodbye ever since — but this time it's real. 

Tegel airport: A futuristic walkway in red and glass (Timothy A. Rooks)
You have seen one international airport, you have seen them all? Not Tegel! Here a futuristic walkway in red and glassImage: Timothy Rooks/DW

Don't count on history

Tegel is far from perfect and no building should get a free pass just because of its remarkable history. But the airport could still have had a part in ferrying people in and out of Berlin. Why demolish all the existing infrastructure to simply build new? 

A second hexagon-shaped terminal to mirror the first was planned but never executed. Extending the subway to reach the airport was also planned but the city balked. Additions that were built starting in the 2000s were supposed to be temporary and were correspondingly cheap and not well-thought-out.

As Berlin passenger numbers climbed, the government could have changed their mind and kept Tegel online in addition to the new BER. They didn't. They stubbornly stuck to their decades-old plan as if hard-headedness makes that decision right.

Tegel airport: Markings on the tarmac showing where various planes are supposed to stop (Timothy A. Rooks)
Markings on the tarmac showing where various planes are supposed to stop Image: Timothy Rooks/DW

Ironically, with the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, even BER is currently proving too big. This is just a minor bump in the road though. Soon passenger numbers will again increase and one day Berlin will regret its decision.

Yet the creativity that the city is famous for does not extend to the government. They favor the generic and boring, and refuse to see the advantages of having two airports.

Now that BER is online, Tegel could be updated and resized to its original hexagon of 14 gates and 16 check-in counters to serve select airlines, the government or private jets willing to pay for the close access to the city. But once they rip up the runway there will be no going back.

History gave unified Berlin three functioning airports. One by one they have disappeared. When Tegel is gone, the jet age will be over for Berlin. Its BER replacement is far away and no new airport will ever be built in the city.

For 46 years Tegel was an eccentric and exceptional addition to Berlin. May it remain in our memories forever as the airport built around the idea that form should follow function — the one international airport where travelers came first.

Tegel airport: An out-of-commission escalator at Tegel airport (Timothy A. Rooks)
An out of commission escalator at Tegel airport Image: Timothy Rooks/DW
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