Berlin Tegel and the City’s Airport Debacle

“You might want to get some priority baggage check in,” said my colleague as we were booking tickets. I wondered why that was needed, we were going to Berlin, the capital of the most efficient country in Europe (and perhaps the world), baggage check in should be a breeze. Well, that was what I thought at least and I was relieved that I had purchased the baggage check in when I joined the Easyjet queue.

Despite having purchased that pass, the queue still moved slower than a snail with glue. There were barely five people ahead of me and yet the two hour early arrival turned into 30 minutes to rush to the plane by the time I reached the front of the queue. “Does this happen everytime?!” I snapped, my voice a mixture of curiosity and frustration.

“Yes, unfortunately. Same shit, different day. The airport just can’t cope with the number of people flying in.” Was the answer from the Easyjet service staff at the counter. They have a tough job, especially when they are trying to do a job with highly inferior tools. It made me feel bad about getting frustrated, it didn’t however ease the irritation.

The tools I refer to is the airport, Tegel. For the capital of one of the most influential airports in the world, and with airports the first port of call for many, Tegel does not do the great city that is Berlin justice. Berlin’s airport situation has been a debacle. One that has caused much embarrassment to the municipality and residents for quite some time.

Looking almost make-shift, over-capacity and under-manned, Tegel seems almost like a throwback to the past.

This is especially damning when compared to the new airports in places like Gdnask and Warsaw in Poland and Vilnius in Lithuania even, let alone global hubs like Doha.

There is a reason to the forgettable look of Tegel Airport. Tegel was constructed in 90 days as an airbase in mid 1949 during the Cold War when it was realised during the Berlin Airlift that the then existing Tempelhof Airport was unable to cope with the relief aircraft arriving to ease the pressure of Berlin. The structure looked exactly like what one would expect a structure built in 90 days to look like – functional.

It expanded in the late 1950s to become a commercial airport when Tempelhof Airport and its short runway had again become obsolete for newer aircraft. By the late 1960s Tegel was open to flights from the Western world, first from France, UK and the US and was expanded one more time in 1975, becoming the main airport in West Berlin. Air traffic was tightly controlled in West Berlin (seeing as West Berlin was an island in East Germany). Only airlines headquartered in France, UK and the US, with staff holding only these passports was able to fly into West Berlin, even the West German airline Lufthansa was unable to fly into West Berlin.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany opened the skies of Berlin to flights from all over the world and suddenly many airlines set up routes into Berlin. The former East Berlin Airport Schönefeld was brought into the fold and collectively all three airports had to deal with traffic into the city.

The division of the three airports was as follows: Tegel because it was the biggest hub was to be the primary airport with air traffic from the biggest cities arriving there, Schönefeld would be a secondary hub and Tempelhof would serve regional and small aircraft. However the cost of running three separate airports was proving prohibitive, and it was felt that economies (savings) could have been made if a single airport was built. Hence to that end, a state of the art international airport Berlin-Brandenburg was decided upon in 1990. These three airports (Tegel, Schönefeld and Tempelhof) were meant to be in service until a single united Berlin airport, Berlin-Brandenburg was built. Planning for Berlin-Brandenburg however took 16 years, and construction only began in 2006, slated for completion in 2011. In preparations for that, Tempelhof airport was closed in 2008, turning organically eventually into an airport park.

Despite 16 years of planning, the length of time an individual matures from baby into post-puberty teenager, the project has not been completed yet.

There was a delayed plan for a 2017 opening which was delayed to 2018, and then to 2019 and now to 2020 with some analyst expecting the airport to open instead in 2021.

The organization has been plagued by poor management, poor organization and corruption. Transforming what should have been the crown jewel of Berlin’s airports into an international farce (here, here, here, here and here). Discussions at home have even suggested scrapping the whole project and restarting from point zero.

The delays have caused problems however, Berlin-Brandenburg was supposed to have a total capacity of 27 million passengers when it was first planned, with an eventual capacity of 45 million. However as of 2017, Berlin already handles 33 million passengers. Meaning that both Schonefled and Tegel which were meant to be retired after the newest airport was opened cannot do so without creating over capacity in the new airport right from day one. Whole sections of the airport meant for Lufthansa have to be reworked because the airline has undergone an image change and a logo change in the last few years. The whole building was not built to the plans and specifications meaning even more money has to be poured in to complete he building.

Berlin has an airport problem. Hopefully it will be solved.

I hope one day to fly into a different Berlin airport, one that is befitting this capital city.



One thought on “Berlin Tegel and the City’s Airport Debacle

  1. Contrast this with the Munich and Hamburg Airports. Frankfurt is no prize either, but it is better than Tegel. Berlin is one of the most dynamic cities in the world and the airport situations is a disgrace. Tempelhof can handle 737’s for intra German services which would take some of the load off Tegel. It’s there, the runways are there, the terminal is there. Use it!


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