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Photo Gallery: The Contested Path to Flight Paths

Foto: Georg-Stefan Russew/ dpa

Saying No to Noise Resistance Builds to Planned Flight Paths at New Berlin Airport

Berlin's new international airport is scheduled to open next year, but when revised plans for the flight paths were publicized last fall, residents of the city's southern suburbs took to the streets. Many say they moved into their homes because they were told they wouldn't be affected by the airport noise. The issue has even forced a response from Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Von Mary Beth Warner

When Marietta Saerve and her husband moved to the Berlin area from central Germany three years ago, they wanted to buy their own house with a garden. Saerve spent time using the Internet to research a new airport under construction, Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI), which was planned more than a decade ago to replace the three airports that had existed in the once walled-in city.

She had lived in the shadows of an airport before, in Epstein near Frankfurt Airport, Germany's largest. Saerve eventually moved from her apartment there, she said, because the noise got to be too much. The 50-year-old bookkeeper said she even called the Berlin airport to find out what towns would be affected by the noise before she and her husband bought their small, freestanding house with an arbor over the path leading to a large yard.

Assured that the village of Stahnsdorf, southwest of Berlin, was not under the flight paths, she and her husband bought the house, renovated it and moved in. They were thrilled, she said, to hear birds waking them up in the morning.

Then, on Sept. 6, 2010, she got the news that sent her "crashing back down to earth." That day, the German agency responsible for determining flight paths, Air Traffic Control (DFS), announced newly planned routes for BBI.

Until that point, the assumed flight paths from the two runways ran parallel to each other over a swath of land in rural Brandenburg, not affecting the city of Berlin or its more densely populated suburbs. But the newly announced paths had planes veering off at an angle, requiring them to fly over parts of Berlin and suburbs including Stahnsdorf.

The announcement angered and pushed Saerve and many like her into action. It spawned a protest movement across the southern reaches of Berlin and its suburbs that grew so large that Chancellor Angela Merkel was even drawn into the debate, and forced a re-examination of the proposed routes for the airport.

Gathering Forces Through Facebook and Twitter

Many of those involved live in villages south of Berlin, where the population has in some cases doubled in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with young professionals and others moving into the area looking for a quiet place to live and raise families.

They started their own websites and used Facebook and Twitter to get the word out about the flight paths. They held local demonstrations, hung banners from bridges, and put signs in their windows. Soon, 14 separate protest groups joined forces to form an umbrella organization. Their protests grew.

In January, 15,000 people gathered at the site of the new airport to rally against the announced routes. Another major protest is planned for this Saturday, March 12. Early next week, the Air Traffic Control agency will be presenting flight path alternatives to a special commission set up to discuss the airport noise.

A spokesman for the Berlin state government, Dr. Richard Meng, said compromise routes that were discussed by the agency last month have quieted the debate over the flight paths in the city, and were very "acceptable" for Berlin.

One Airport in the Shadow of Three

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city was left with three airports, each with its own unique history. There was Tempelhof Airport, built up by the Nazis in the center of Berlin; Tegel Airport in northwestern Berlin that was built in the French sector of the city at the time of the Berlin Airlift; and Schönefeld Airport, southeast of Berlin, which was once East Germany's main airstrip.

In 1996, the German transportation minister, the mayor of Berlin and the governor of the state of Brandenburg agreed on a plan to consolidate the airports at one location in Schönefeld, next to the existing airport.

In a country where individual property is taken very seriously, and where people who build or buy a home tend to stay there for the long term, several people interviewed for this article said that, like Saerve, they, too had carefully researched the area before deciding on where to buy.

Near the airport, that meant visiting an information center set up close to the construction site where the new terminal is being built. Most of the construction at the airport, which will have one main terminal and modern technology such as floor heating and cooling, is scheduled to be completed by the fall. Six months of trial runs will then take place before the airport is scheduled to open in June 2012.

Noise Simulators and Glossy Brochures

Airport officials even developed a noise simulator at the information center so residents could plug in their address and town and get an idea of what the noise level from the airport would be. Others were sent glossy materials from the airport with details on the plans.

A spokesman for the Airport Company, Berliner Flughäfen GmbH, Ralf Kunkel, said that the September announcement by DFS had been "surprising." He noted that in Germany the planning for the airport's construction is done by a different agency than that responsible for the flight paths. The Airport Company had been operating with plans they had originally gotten from Air Traffic Control (DFS), he said.

The activists, though, allege the Airport Company knew as far back as 1998 that flight paths would change, and point to a letter written then by a former head of the company in which he encourages federal officials not to publicize the routes. The letter had been leaked to a major German tabloid newspaper in December.

Kunkel said that letter was "water under the bridge," and "fully irrelevant." He described support for their protest movement as waning, following a February demonstration that attracted smaller numbers and new compromise routes that have developed in recent weeks.

The Airport Company, Kunkel notes, which is jointly financed by the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, has spent €40 million on residents living adjacent to its runways, buying them new windows for their bedrooms, and ceiling fans so they can sleep with their windows closed at night. Most of those in the new protest movement don't benefit from the incentives, since they live outside the direct area.

Taking to the Courts

The issue has been fodder for several lawsuits, with multiple cases pending in the courts related to the flight paths and the permitting process. The German Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig is expected to soon render a decision on a lawsuit involving a permit for some late night and early morning flights issued for the airport. If one of those suits is successful, it could delay the airport's operation, though Berlin officials consider it unlikely.

But unlike another major protest movement in Germany, the movement to stop the extremely controversial "Stuttgart 21" project to modernize that city's train station, many of the protestors in Berlin say they see the need for a new single airport, and are not pushing for a halt to construction.

"We need an airport -- we also fly -- but the paths need to be what they were communicated 15 years ago," said Matthias Piaszinski, a tax accountant who is heading the protest movement in Stahnsdorf.

Observers hope a final decision on the routes is made by late spring or early summer, but legally the final flight paths only have to be announced three months before the airport opens.

'It's Now or Never'

In Berlin, where there is a state election in September, the issue has already become heavily politicized. Chancellor Merkel, whose party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is in the minority in the state's government, recently offered her own opinion on the controversy. "Those responsible, whether at the Air Traffic Control (DFS) or wherever, have the duty to find a reasonable solution, based on what was promised," Merkel said at a February gathering of the CDU in Berlin.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has also said publicly that he was surprised by the routes announced in September, and has stood by the start date for the airport, despite the pending lawsuits.

Renate Künast, the Greens' candidate for mayor, had to backtrack last year after saying: "We must first of all have a debate about what kind of airport we want -- a big international hub or a European connection." The statement was heavily criticized for not taking into account how far along the airport project was.

For some in the movement, the September elections offer the best hope for change. Marela Bone-Winkel, a mother of four in the leafy district of Nikolasee in southwestern Berlin, was one of the first organizers of the protest movement in September.

"It's now or never," she said. "It's our only chance."

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