Farewell to Tegel: 5 fun facts about Germany's quirkiest airport
Take a bow, Tegel. The final flight will depart from Berlin’s beloved airport on Sunday, November 8. In honour of its retirement, we take a look at the unique history of the quirkiest airport in Germany.
Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin Tegel
Once at the cutting edge of design with its unusual, hexagonal shape, Berlin Tegel Airport is now woefully outdated and overstretched, having never been built to handle the sheer volume of passengers that pass through its terminals. Its original design allowed for around 2,5 million passengers each year; shortly before the coronavirus crisis, it was receiving more than 24 million.
So, after decades of dedicated service, the former West Berlin hub will finally be put out to pasture this week, to make way for the long-awaited Berlin Brandenburg Airport, which finally opened on October 31 after nearly a decade of delays. In honour of its closure, here are five fun facts about Germany’s favourite hexagonal airport.
1. Tegel was built in just 90 days
In an impressive feat that puts the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport thoroughly to shame, Tegel Airport was built in just 90 days, during the Berlin Blockade of 1948. As the Soviets blocked railways, Autobahns and canals to cut off access to West Berlin, the Allies mounted a huge counter operation to fly in emergency supplies. Tegel thus began life as a makeshift airfield.
19.000 people worked around the clock to ensure that the airport was completed in record time. And to make room for certain larger aircraft which couldn’t land at Berlin’s main airport, Tempelhof, Tegel was fitted with a 2.428-metre runway - which at the time was the longest in Europe.
The first plane to land at Tegel Airport on November 5, 1948, was a United States Air Force Douglas C-54 Skymaster, with eight tonnes of cheese in its hold. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, a plane was landing in Berlin every 30 seconds.
2. Tegel’s official name is “Otto-Lilienthal Airport”
But it wasn’t until 1960 that the first commercial flight landed at Berlin Tegel, and it took until the 1970s for it to really come into its own. In 1968, Tempelhof Airport reached maximum capacity, and a number of airlines moved their services to Tegel. As the number of both passengers and flights - and the size of commercial aircraft - grew, Tegel was gradually expanded.
In the mid-1960s, a relatively unknown duo of architects, Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg, won the commission for the airport’s rebuild. Their unique, now-infamous, hexagonal design transformed the airport into a major landmark and paved the way for the architectural company’s breakthrough on an international level.
Their super-convenient design for Terminal A arranged the gates around the concrete building’s six sides, doing away with a central transit zone and thus reducing the walking distance from the aircraft to the car park to as little as 30 metres. Tegel soon earned the nickname of the “drive-in airport”.
Building work began in 1970 and it opened four years later, on November 1, 1974. At the topping out ceremony, all of the guests were given hexagonal glasses. In 1988, the airport was christened “Otto-Lilienthal Airport”, after the German pioneer of aviation, but the name hasn’t really caught on.
3. The first Lufthansa flight didn’t arrive at Tegel until 1990
As long as West Berlin remained an isolated exclave in Soviet-controlled East Germany, all air traffic to the city was under Allied occupied control. That meant that only airlines headquartered in the United States, the United Kingdom or France were allowed to fly in or out. Even the crew members were required to hold American, British or French passports.
This meant that the German airline Lufthansa was locked out of Tegel throughout the Cold War period, with only Air France, British Airways and Pan Am operating flights through West Berlin. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall that other airlines were allowed a piece of the pie.
Lufthansa promptly bought Pan Am’s traffic rights and its slots in Tegel, and the first flight landed on October 28, 1990 - nearly 30 years to the day before the last Lufthansa flight is scheduled to depart.
4. The last plane to leave Tegel will be an Air France flight
During the coronavirus crisis, a slump in passenger numbers forced Tegel to temporarily close its doors, as all flights were redirected to Schönefeld - and some people feared that the airport might never reopen. However, the powers that be have decreed that Tegel should be granted a final hurrah.
Lufthansa’s final flight will therefore take off from Tegel on November 7. But the honour of handling the airport’s final flight has been accorded to Air France, who will take the last cohort of passengers from Tegel to Paris Charles de Gaulle at 3 pm on November 8. This is a nod to the fact that the airport is located in what was once the French sector of Berlin.
It also has a nice symmetry to it, since the first commercial flight to land in Tegel in 1960 was also an Air France flight, which had flown from Paris via Frankfurt.
5. Tegel will make way for shops, schools and housing
It might be now severely unfit for purpose, but not everybody will be happy to see the old airport go. In fact, in a referendum held in 2017, one million Berliners - a slim majority - voted to keep the airport open. However, that vote was not legally-binding, and authorities eventually confirmed Tegel’s closure for late 2020.
But it won’t simply disappear from the map. Plans for a new exciting project are already in place. Over the coming decades, the wonderfully utopian-sounding “Urban Tech Republic” will be built on the site.
The new development will house a park for research and industry, with up to 1.000 companies and institutes set to move in. There are also plans to transform the landmark Terminal A building into a university campus and to build more than 5.000 new apartments. The whole area will be largely car-free, with residents asked to switch to bicycles or public transport once on-site.
Construction is scheduled to begin next year, and the first residents are due to arrive in 2026, with the entire project taking 20 to 30 years to complete - although given Germany’s track record with airport construction projects, we won’t be holding our breath.