Up in the air

With its replacement a multi-billion-euro quagmire, a growing number of citizens, supported by Berlin’s political fringe, are wondering: Does Tegel need to close at all?

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A projection of the “Urban Tech Republic” that is to be built once Tegel closes.

Plans are already in place for a tech campus and a brand-new neighbourhood to be built once Tegel Airport shuts down. But with its replacement a multi-billion-euro quagmire, a growing number of citizens, supported by Berlin’s political fringe, are wondering: Does Tegel need to close at all?

Its infrastructure is creaky and outdated; its runways are too short; it’s dangerously over capacity, handling more than three times the passengers for which it was designed. Most damning, it shrouds over 300,000 northern Berlin residents with heavy noise pollution. And yet, here Tegel Airport stands – five years after it was slated to be decommissioned – still alive, efficient, beloved by Berliners for reasons of proximity and history (and the fact that one can arrive at a major city’s airport, in 2017, just 30 minutes before takeoff, and still make the flight), with a future that appears unsettled.

Tegel must go

You can thank the disastrously mishandled construction of its intended replacement, the Willy Brandt Memorial Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER), for Tegel’s stay of execution. As it stands now, and as dictated in the Senat’s 2004 official zoning plan for BER, Tegel must close six months after the new airport officially opens, which, to correctly guess that date – already delayed six times – would be an accomplishment on par with winning the German Lotto. New BER project manager Engelbert Lütke Daldrup has shakily offered a “sometime in 2018” opening, but many experts, including Dieter Faulenbach da Costa, a renowned architect and engineer who’s been involved in the construction of over 45 airport terminals around the globe, see that as still unreasonably optimistic, and give the third quarter of 2019 as the earliest conceivable date.

But so it is: once BER somehow opens, Tegel will close. So the Senat has said since the early 1990s, when it was first decided that, for reasons of cost, noise pollution, and general streamlining, Berlin’s air traffic operations needed to be consolidated at a single large modern airport located outside the city. In 1996, Schönefeld was chosen as the eventual site for BER, winning out over Sperenberg and Jüterbog airfields – two decommissioned military bases in Brandenburg – even though both were considered more suitable locations. The given reason: expanding Schönefeld’s existing transportation infrastructure would be easier than building something new in Sperenberg or Jüterbog – which now looks painfully foolish in light of BER’s €6 billion-and-counting construction costs.

Plans were drawn up, deals were made, and Tegel was given its death sentence. Airlines fought the decision, and were spurned by a Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig in 2006, which affirmed that BER could only be approved if the two inner-city airports were closed.

Make way for the future

With this in mind – notwithstanding the fact that these plans and decisions preceded the BER debacle and the explosive growth doubling Berlin’s air traffic since 2006 – the Senat has already gone forward with its post-Tegel development scheme. Currently set in motion is the “Urban Tech Republic”, a research and industrial park for forward-looking urban technologies organized by Tegel Projekt GmbH, the city-owned group commissioned for Tegel’s redevelopment. “We’re setting the stage for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reindustrialise Berlin on a new, contemporary level,” says Dr. Phillip Bouteiller, CEO of Tegel Projekt. The stage right now only definitively includes the Beuth University of Applied Sciences, which will be housed in the former hexagonal wings of the terminal; spaced around that, in the main terminal and other parts of TXL, will be what Bouteiller calls “actors from private business and academia” – up to 1000 yet-to-be-determined companies and start-ups who will be developing the blueprint for sustaining future cities, alongside their own production facilities. “This is the right space to do this,” Bouteiller says. “We have loads of existing useful infrastructure, a wide area upon which to build – the equivalent of five percent of Barcelona! – and a great central location, a rarity in Berlin, to attract private enterprise.” Aside from the project’s forecasted economic benefits, including some 17,500 new jobs, the development will also bring a new public transport line connecting to U/S-Bahn Jungfernheide, as well as a residential area, the Schumacher Quartier, composed of 5000 new apartments. As championed by city building director Regula Lüscher, this will be a New Urbanism laboratory of sorts, utilising the cost-effective, energy-efficient technologies developed across the way.

The unlikely defenders

But the Berlin chapter of the small pro-business, liberal FDP party is saying: not so fast. As BER struggles to patch glitches and faulty designs, it has become increasingly obvious to them – and to a number of experts, as well – that some problems with the airport are just not going to go away. Specifically: “It’s too small,” points out Juliane Hüttl, an executive board member for FDP Berlin. She’s right: the airport, when it begins operations, will only be able to handle 27 million passengers (way below the 33 million shared currently between Tegel and Schönefeld). And, even worse, it will only have two runways – insane for a major city’s only airport. A third is “possible”, but highly unlikely “because,” Hüttl says, “the people of Brandenburg would never allow it” – which doesn’t even mention its additional €1 billion price tag. Airport officials say BER can be expanded to handle 45 million (via another terminal), with a third runway increasing that number to 50, but with passenger numbers set to crest 46.8 million as soon as 2030, and trending upward, it appears it’s just not feasible for BER to go at things alone. And surely such an expansion, which would cost around €3.2 billion and be terrifying for a population already jaded by the 11 years it’s taken to not finish a single terminal, doesn’t make sense next to re-modernising and maintaining Tegel. “We’ve affirmed objectively with airlines and economists that it’s wholly possible financially,” says Hüttl. “The situation is clear. We need both airports, so we need to talk about this, and until we have these conversations, no one is actually going to plan anything.”

The issue is the so-called legal risk: many have argued that keeping Tegel open would lead to endless legal proceedings which could jeopardize the operating licenses of both BER and Tegel to the extent where Berlin would be left with no functioning airport at all. But what the Senate and others are calling ironclad, the FDP and other pro-Tegel factions – such as community group Tegel bleibt offen, a citizens’ initiative formed in 2012 – are calling hogwash. Michael Kromarek, head of Tegel bleibt offen, explains that there’s never been a specific decree or decision that Tegel had to be closed. “In 1996 it was simply a ‘recommendation’, which the city government keeps treating as law.” As for the 2006 court decision in Leipzig? “That also doesn’t change anything,” Hüttl says, referencing two official agreements – one from the Bundestag, and another from the Berlin Parliament – which specify that there is no legal problem with keeping both BER and Tegel open. “And anyway,” she adds, “there is nothing legally binding in the BER zoning plan itself that requires Tegel to close.” Regardless, they both say, what was once decided politically, can be retracted politically – and should be, given the current set of circumstances.

The people’s choice

For pro-Tegelers, the problem is getting their voice heard. Both the CDU and SPD parties are firmly in favour of Tegel’s closure. The FDP (which gets about seven percent of the vote in Berlin) has minimal political clout to affect the situation, with no representation in the Bundestag, and only recently resurfacing with seats at the Berlin level. But the good thing for them is: the majority of Berliners apparently want Tegel open, too.

“Official reports say that 70 percent of Berliners support Tegel staying open,” says Kromarek, “If Tegel runs a profit, works efficiently, is strategically located, and needed to assist BER, and it is affirmed that Berliners want this, then it cannot be accepted that this is ignored for political reasons.” And so, sensing a path to forcing the Senat’s hand (and probably to Parliament, as well), the FDP, in collaboration with the “Pro Tegel” association, began the process for initiating a Volksentscheid, a referendum, in early 2016. They found an unexpected reserve of support from the AfD, currently polling at about eight percent among Berlin voters: the right-wing populists latched onto the issue as a way to show that they had something concrete to offer in local politics other than deporting refugees and preventing mosques from being built.

They needed 174,000 valid signatures to succeed, and on April 4 of this year, it was confirmed that 204,263 had signed the petition. Among Berlin’s districts, Charlottenburg showed the strongest support for the petition at 18 percent – but surprisingly, coming in second with 16 percent was Reinickendorf, the district closest to Tegel and most affected by noise pollution (said signees: an open Tegel would keep their rents low). Now, there is a wait for the actual referendum, which is scheduled to be part of the September 24 national elections and will require a quorum (participation of 25 percent of the electorate) and a majority to be successful – but even that may not change anything, since it won’t enact anything legally binding. The Berlin government has already warned that irrespective of the referendum’s outcome, Tegel will close as planned once BER finally operates. It’s only a matter of time.

So what’s next?

Regardless on which side of the debate you’re on, there are certain things that will have to be addressed. BER’s capacity issues, a hard-to-ignore majority if the referendum is successful, and, one thing many people, including the Senat, forget to mention: the EU directive which will force Berlin to spend €2 billion on noise protection measures for the homes surrounding Tegel if the airport is still operating in 2019, which is likely. As Hüttl says: “If we have to spend the money anyway to address noise pollution as BER sputters, then we might as well keep Tegel going, and figure out other ways to further reduce it – curfews for flights, maybe, or something else. There are things we can do, and so producing a paper on these types of solutions is one main focus of the FDP in the lead-up to the referendum.” Our guess? Wait for BER to open before anyone in the Senat says they need Tegel. In short, don’t be saying goodbye anytime soon.


1948 Background — founded by the French, in 1948, to aid in the Berlin Airlift; took its iconic, efficient (32 metres from terminal entrance to plane) hexagonal shape in the early 1970s.

21.25m Capacity—designed for seven million passengers/year, which became nine million with early 2000s expansions; currently bursting at the seams, handling around 21.25 million.

€80m Finances—turns an €80 million profit each year, a figure many cite when arguing it should be modernised and kept running.

1996 Death sentence—in 1996, based off a recommendation from the Federal Minister of Transportation, Tegel and Tempelhof were both slated for closure to make way for the eventual BER. As stated in BER’s 2004 zoning plan, Tegel is to close six months after BER opens.

2 vs. 1 Airline support—In contrast to Lufthansa, who supports a solely-operated BER because “two airports would cause confusion,” Ryanair threw their weight behind the Berlin braucht Tegel initiative, citing BER’s capacity problems.