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'An Era Is Coming To An End': Travelers Bid Fond Farewell To Berlin's Tegel Airport

Berlin's Tegel Airport opened in 1948 and is closing Sunday as a new international hub opens after a series of delays. Although COVID-19 has hampered travel, Germans are flocking to Tegel to relive memories.
Berlin's Tegel Airport opened in 1948 and is closing Sunday as a new international hub opens after a series of delays. Although COVID-19 has hampered travel, Germans are flocking to Tegel to relive memories.

Airports can be emotional places, where loved ones part ways and families reunite. Now more than ever, as the pandemic hampers air travel, they are an embodiment of what the Germans call Fernweh, which — for want of an English word — roughly means the painful longing to be elsewhere, a wretched wanderlust or restlessness.

In Berlin, the city's airports provoke wildly different emotions, depending on which one you're talking about. Until a decade ago, there were three, then two — and soon there will be just one. But any mention of this long-awaited international airport tends to elicit expletives and laughter because of a succession of technical fiascos which set back construction by almost a decade, causing the construction budget to run over by more than $4.7 billion.

After postponing half a dozen times over a nine-year period, the airport finally opened on Oct. 31, with little fanfare to save both money and face.

Even Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, the latest in a series of chief executives for the airport, has strong feelings about the place.

"The massive delays and construction problems made Berlin and the whole of Germany a laughing stock," he said at a recent press conference. "As a German engineer, I'm ashamed."

But at Tegel, Berlin's other airport — built 72 years ago and set to close for good on Nov. 8 — the mood is melancholic. Although the coronavirus means that few are flying anywhere, Berliners are visiting Terminal A simply to walk about, drink an overpriced beer and quietly take their leave.

"I came here today to take a few farewell photos," says Rolf Schneider, a 66-year-old retired engineer, wielding a large camera. "I've flown from Tegel many times since the Wall came down, and it feels like an era is coming to an end."

As a resident of East Berlin, Schneider couldn't fly from West Berlin's Tegel — or anywhere else — until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. For him, the airport represented a freedom he was denied until middle age. He says he knows all about Fernweh.

Tegel was built to guarantee the freedom of West Berliners. Constructed in 1948 during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, it enabled Allied planes to deliver much-needed postwar supplies that were also being flown into a British military air base and the city's Tempelhof Airport, decommissioned in 2008 and now a park.

While it took just three months to build a functioning airport at Tegel — and what was, at the time, Europe's longest runway — its contemporary replacement has taken 30 years to come to fruition. The initial concept came after German reunification in 1990 and construction began 16 years later.

Hamburg-based aviation journalist Andreas Spaeth has reported on the entire story from start to finish. He says he is still trying to explain why it took Berlin so long to build a new airport.

"How the hell could this happen to Germans, of all people, so much known for their precision?" he exclaims.

Spaeth says the new airport's series of construction issues has debunked the myth of German efficiency once and for all. A roof turned out to be too heavy for the building; escalators were too short. Lights, once turned on, couldn't be turned off.

Much of the airport's décor is now outdated, he says, and even one of the gates, originally intended to serve the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet, is already obsolete because Air Berlin, the company that planned to run the plane, went bust in 2017. And now, the A380 itself is being decommissioned.

And then there's the coronavirus pandemic. Even before it opened, the airport was already losing several million dollars a week and faces yet more debt with the airline industry in turmoil.

But Spaeth says the current lack of passengers has a silver lining. "Berlin airport is almost lucky in a way that this crisis happens now," he says. "They can actually calmly and quietly open the airport without being at maximum capacity demand right away."

Back at Tegel, the main terminal fills up with nostalgic day-trippers.

"We came here today to say goodbye because over the years we've experienced a lot at this airport," says Mariane Dillenberger, visiting with her husband. "All those memories: meeting family in arrivals, heading off on vacation. It's rather moving to be here, and a little bit sad, too."

Grabbing her husband, Rainer Dillenberger, she says: "You should talk to my husband. He was the one who insisted we come today. It's moving for him too, as a West Berliner. Right, darling?"

But he politely excuses himself and turns away.

"He can't talk," his wife explains. "It hurts too much. He's welling up with tears. Oh, dear!"

Her husband's tears signify Heimweh — the opposite of Fernweh.They reflect a painful longing for home, a yearning for the West Berlin that is no more.

But a little bit of that bygone place can still be found at the new airport. It is named after the late Willy Brandt, a Nobel Peace laureate and chancellor who worked for East and West German reconciliation — and served as West Berlin's mayor in the mid-20th century.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.