Auf Wiedersehen Tempelhof An Era Ends with Closing of Berlin Airport

The last passengers mill around the concourse, the baggage claim belt is at a standstill. After 85 years, Thursday is the last day flights will leave Germany's most famous airport. It once hosted Marlene Dietrich and the Beatles, but it will now give up the stage to a massive new international airport.

The air still reeks of jet fuel. "Hold your breath for as long as you can," Dieter Nickel tells his former colleague as they reach the rooftop of Berlin's Tempelhof Airport. He gazes out over the brightly lit airfield, where a rescue helicopter is landing. The rotors hum. Amateur pilots taxi their planes onto the runway and slowly take off, one after the other.

Nickel has worked here for 41 years. He directed design and construction. For the last few years the 70-year-old has also led visitors through Tempelhof. These are goodbye tours. On Thursday, Oct. 30, Tempelhof will turn out its lights for good.

After 85 years of service, Germany's best-known airport will pass into the dustbin of history -- despite protests by Berliners, despite prominent advocates like Chancellor Angela Merkel, American billionaire Ronald S. Lauder and journalist Michael S. Cullen. A tortured farewell, partly played out in German courts, is drawing to a close.

'Politicians Behave as if We Were in Some Backwater Province'

They have heard it over and over: Tempelhof will close. Nickel and his colleagues have said their personal goodbyes to this place over and over, only to hear, "it will stay open -- for now."

And even now, no one here is convinced that the closure is really final. On the contrary. Closing the airport would be a crying shame, says a one-time civil engineer, who argues that Tempelhof represents an opportunity for Berlin. Many business people would use the airport, he says, and eventually bring in money. Indeed, many in Berlin have pointed to the success of London's City Airport, located near the downtown financial district, as a model the German capital could emulate.

A retired air traffic controller who worked at Tegel, which replaced Tempelhof in recent decades as the city's main hub, is angry about the decision to close the historic airport. "Berlin had a bid to become a world city," he says, "but our politicians behave as if we were in some backwater province."

Tempelhof. It was once the largest and most modern airport in the world -- located smack dab in the middle of Berlin. It first opened as a simple booth in 1923. Later the rich and beautiful used the airport: Celebrities like German actress Marlene Dietrich, Swedish silver screen star and singer Zarah Leander and even the Beatles. The current structure at Tempelhof dates to the years of Nazi rule, built between 1936 and 1941, using plans drawn up by architect Ernst Sagebiel. He created a limestone and concrete colossus with 13 stair towers, its own heat and water plants and a giant rounded roof.

Many describe the design as megalomaniacal. For British architect Norman Foster, Tempelhof is no less than "the mother of all airports." The main building alone is 1.2 kilometers (0.74 miles) long. It wraps halfway around the airfield, its shape reminiscent of a coat hanger. From the roof of the colossus the aircraft look like toy planes.

'Like a Museum'

It's 4 p.m. in the concourse. The baggage claim stands still. The souvenir shop has been cleared out and dead silence prevails in the left luggage room.

Two travellers wait in flat gray plastic seats. "It's like a museum, filled with tourists," marvels one 28-year-old woman. "Sometimes you just have to let go." With her flight having just arrived from Brussels, she is one of the last few passengers to use the airport. In the future she will have to fly to Tegel.

This is how Mayor Klaus Wowereit and his leftist city government want it, and they have the backing of the courts. In recent years, Tempelhof has operated at a €10 million ($12.8 million) to €15 million loss each year. The city says the money is needed for construction of the planned Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, to be located at the site of the current Schönefeld Airport. BBI, with a construction price tag of €2.2 billion, is expected to open in 2011. Once the airport is fully operational, Tegel is also expected to close.

"Tempelhof should have stayed open at least until the new big airport was finished," sighs Nickel. This is why he voted to keep the city center airport open in a Berlin referendum in April. He says he understands the arguments in favor of its closure -- Tempelhof is loud and polluting. Despite the fact that the majority of those who voted in the referendum called for the city to keep Tempelhof's runways open, too few showed up at polling stations to make their vote count and the results were nullified.

Nostalgia Tour on the Candy Bomber

"It's madness to want to shut the world's first passenger airport," says Manfred Roseneit. "I could cry." The 69-year-old stands in the former officer's lounge wearing a leather jacket and jeans. Swing music pipes in through the loudspeakers.

He's on a nostalgia tour. He wants to hearken back to the Berlin blockade years of 1948 and 1949. That's when Russians cut off all channels of supplies to West Berlin, and America launched the so-called Berlin Airlift in response. The Rosinenbomber, or "candy bombers" as they were known by locals, brought vital goods, coffee, coal and sweets -- landing day and night at Tempelhof.

Roseneit is due to take off in one in a few minutes, but the tour is cancelled at the last minute due to engine problems. Roseneit said he will walk through the main hall and then go home. "That's it, then, for me."

Even Closed, Tempelhof Will Cost Millions

For most of those who Nickel leads through Tempelhof, the place seems like an enormous labyrinth of corridors, bunkers, rooms and facts and figures. The underground grid alone is 4.5 kilometers, and the floor area is more than 290,000 square meters. It could hold 40 soccer fields.

This boggles the mind, but Nickel finds the scale of the place to be "simply fascinating." As he speaks, he fumbles for the key that opens the next door. Behind it lies a room that used to contain bowling alley and basketball court for the Americans and still more brown-panelled corridors.

"And what will happen next," asks one of the group. Earnest faces. "That is a question," says Nickel. As of now there is only one certainty: The tours will continue. The empty airport is protected as a memorial, which means it must continue to be heated and guarded. Nine firemen and 38 others will continue to work at Tempelhof, at a cost of €1 million per month, according to Germany's Federal Finance Ministry -- with Berlin taxpayers picking up the tab.

And what next? Nickel shrugs his shoulders. The city's department of urban development recently sent out a "call for ideas" for the airport terminal and the 365-hectare airfield that accompanies it. There is talk of a national garden festival, a park and eco-friendly houses. There are also proposals to turn it into a film studio or museum of air travel. Nothing is concrete.

The Last Flight Out

"The so-called future" is what Steffen Wardin calls it. He's the head of Air Service Berlin, a company that offers aerial tours in the Rosinenbomber. Wardin knows what happens to airports that lose their raison d'être. All that remains of the former airport Mockau in Leipzig, just an hour south of Berlin, is the check-in area and a lot of weeds. It's sad.

At 11:55 p.m., Wardin will start the engine of his Douglas DC-3 Rosinenbomber for the last trip out of Tempelhof, at the same time as a JU 52, the plane used in the early days by Lufthansa, Germany's flagship carrier. Before that, the last commercial flight, a Cirrus Airlines Dornier 328, will depart for Mannheim at 9:50 p.m.

The main hall will be closed during the goodbye party, with only 800 specially invited guests. Just outside, protesters are expected to show their incomprehension of the airport's demise for one last time. A candle-lit demonstration will be held at the Platz der Luftbücke, a memorial to the Berlin Airlift located just in front of the airport.

But Wardin won't take any more notice of it all. He will be landing at his so-called future. The Rosinenbomber is moving to Schönefeld.

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