Berlin’s Tegel airport has subsisted by chance alone, defying the odds as passenger growth outpaces every other major hub in Western Europe.
The airport reported passenger growth of 7.9 percent last year, more than twice the pace of London Heathrow, the busiest hub in Europe. Compared with Frankfurt’s 0.9 percent advance, Tegel’s passenger inflow was downright explosive.
Tegel’s boom is also its swan song. An hour’s drive south of the hexagon building lies a 4.5 billion-euro ($6.1 billion) replacement hub fit to accommodate the millions of tourists flowing into Germany’s capital. The only catch: the new airport should have taken over two years ago, before technical faults derailed the plan. That’s given a new lease of life to the 1970s Tegel beloved by passengers for its short distances as much as it is ridiculed for a lack of shopping.
“Tegel provides total clarity, the entire airport is comprehensible at first sight,” said Meinhard von Gerkan, 79, the architect who designed the building four decades ago and also planned Berlin’s new Willy-Brandt terminus, now due to open after 2015. “Transfer times are reduced due to the round setup. But that’s a contradiction to the idea of having passengers take the longest possible route to channel them past perfume bottles and t-shirts.”
Tegel is a relic of the Cold-War era, when Berlin was a tiny island in a communist ocean and Frankfurt the country’s undisputed gateway to the world. First designed to handle 2.7 million passengers, that number jumped to 19.6 million last year. While still a fraction of the 58 million served at Frankfurt, Berlin’s status as a prime tourist attraction has steadily fed Tegel beyond its most optimistic capacity.
Berlin had a record 26 million overnight guests last year, its tourism office said, making it Europe’s No. 3 city destination. Tegel’s passenger total ranked 24th for Europe as a whole and fourth in Germany after Frankfurt, Munich and Dusseldorf. Berlin Schoenefeld, which will be subsumed by the new airport, saw a 7.3 percent contraction to 6.58 million.
Officially named Otto Lilienthal airport after the 19th century Prussian aviation pioneer, Tegel sits on a former artillery firing range where barracks for an airship battalion were first built in 1896. Used as a rocket testing facility in the 1930s, the French built a new airport in 1948 on the site.
Among Tegel’s biggest draws is passengers’ ability to walk from curb to gate in a matter of seconds. The airport doesn’t have multiple arrival-departure levels and only rudimentary retail space, having been built entirely around the concept of getting travelers to their aircraft as quickly as possible.
Conversely, leaving the airport can fray nerves. There is no train connection and the central taxi stands quickly overflow with passengers fighting for a cream-colored cab into the city. A new building dedicated to budget airline Air Berlin Plc has the design appeal and amenities of a hastily assembled shelter.
The contrast to Tegel’s fit-for-demolition charm is heightened by others raising the bar. British Airways Concorde Room at Heathrow features crystal chandeliers, fireplaces and complimentary massages. Air France lures luxury travelers with French cuisine at the La Premiere Lounge at Charles de Gaulle, while Deutsche Lufthansa AG’s first-class lounge in Frankfurt in serves up 52 different mineral waters and 158 whiskey brands.
“It was pioneering and futuristic at its time,” von Gerkan said of Tegel. “Today, its physical space no longer fits even the minimum requirements for the amount of passengers that use it.”
The nostalgia gripping Tegel has wafted into the marketing and social-media spheres. Lufthansa designed cotton totes in its corporate colors with an “I love TXL” slogan, the airport’s IATA code. A dedicated online store sells t-shirts, coffee mugs and iPad covers. Berlin Airport’s Facebook site is filled with comments pleading for Tegel to remain open.
The chances of survival are slim. Berlin already closed its iconic Tempelhof airfield used for the Allied airlift during the Cold War, with the stone-clad terminal built by the Nazis in the 1930s ending air traffic in 2008. Today, the airfield and runway are popular with roller-bladers or kite-wielding families.
When the new airport finally opens, Tegel will be converted into a research and industry venue, in addition to houses, parks and woodland, according to government plans. Von Gerkan said keeping the airport going would be preferable.
“There are fairly easy remedies to Tegel’s drawbacks so that it could be maintained as an airport for business travel and government use, an airport worthy of a capital city,” von Gerkan said. “No big city in the industrialized world relies on just two landing strips.”