Berlin's airport drama

The German capital has long served as the setting for a farcical tale of two airports. A recent vote has done nothing to change things, but maybe it's time to rethink our flight habits.

When, after a series of delays, I landed at Berlin's Tegel airport recently, the collective relief among those onboard was palpable. Albeit momentarily. No sooner had everyone stood up than they were advised by an exasperated pilot to sit back down because the ground staff, having forgotten the plane was due in, had not organized buses to the terminal building.

"What else would you expect from Tegel?" he asked through audibly gritted teeth. "But we love it anyway."

We, it turns out, writ large. Last weekend, when Germany went to the polls, voters in the capital were given an additional ballot paper inviting them to have their two cent's worth on the to-be-or-not-to-be of the city's iconic post-war West Berlin airport that is due to close when its beleaguered BER counterpart finally opens for business. Though when that might be, is a moveable feast.

More than 56 percent of those who accepted the invitation to vote, issued on the initiative of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), expressed their "love" for Tegel by putting a cross in the box for its survival.

Outgrown its original purpose

Though not legally binding, the referendum result has prompted talk of backtracking on Tegel's agreed closure plans, of pledges to see its place cemented in Berlin's booming tourism landscape and counter-pledges to ensure nothing of the sort.

Berlin, Volksentscheid um Flughafen Tegel

"Berlin needs Tegel - vote Yes on 24.09" And the majority did

The city's Social Democrat mayor, Michael Müller has proposed a transparent roundtable process to try and resolve the issue. But if past experience relating the city's airports is any measure of how the story plays out, its plot could continue to twist and turn into many volumes yet.

While they are unfolding, inner city Tegel will continue to operate at full throttle. Originally built in 1948 for relief aircraft during the Berlin blockade, and expanded in the 1960s for commercial use, it was never meant to accommodate the wishes of millions of low budget travelers. Yet that is exactly what it does.

Too loud to whisper

According to the capital's authorities for transport, environment and climate, more than 185,000 planes landed or took off from its runways in 2016, roaring over the homes of almost 300,000 people. It's a loud place to be, the flight path. I know, because I live in it.

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Every morning somewhere between 5.30 and 6.00, the first planes of the day climb and descend through the skies over my flat. For years, I gave the airport the benefit of the doubt, arguing that the noise eventually becomes absorbed into your daily soundscape to such an extent that you no longer hear it.

Deutschland Air Berlin

People and planes - loud cohabitation

But it's not really true. And I'm fed up with it. Not only the noise that makes it hard to have a conversation in my own kitchen with the windows open, but the emissions and the apparent mass willingness to ignore just how devastating an effect air travel has on the environment.

It's a chapter that doesn't seem to feature in this never-ending story, but one we need to start writing. In clear letters. I realize, at this point, you may be shouting "hypocrite". With some justification, as I did begin this post with the retelling of my recent landing experience, but the PS to that note is that I don't fly often. Not if I can avoid it. Apart from anything else, and I'm sorry Mr. Pilot, I really don't love Tegel. 


Big planes or really big double-decker planes

Germans are known as fearless globetrotters and the statistics prove it: the total number of airline passengers was up 6 percent to 55.2 million in the first half of this year compared with 2016. Of those travelers, 43 million flew to international destinations, while around 12 million stayed within Germany.


Decisions, decisions at the check-in kiosks

Within Europe the foreign destinations with the biggest growth were sunny places in the south. Travel to Cyprus increased by 78 percent, Greece by 20 percent and Portugal by nearly 16 percent. The biggest loser was Turkey. Though Germany has a large Turkish population, trips there were down by 9 percent.


Private plane with the registration 16+01

Not everyone has to wait in those pesky lines or take off their shoes and belt for security clearance. Here German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves her 143 seat plane, the Konrad Adenauer. But don't be too jealous, the plane had been used by Lufthansa for 10 years before being picked up and refurbished in 2009.


Plain interior with legroom for everyone

Despite the fact that many people complain that seats and legroom are shrinking, there is hardly any other practical option to flying, especially to far away places. So far this year the number of people flying to Africa from Germany was up 28 percent, while the number of those going to the US was up nearly 7 percent.


Gourmet bamboo now on the inflight menu

Not everyone is just flying out of Germany. In June, to great fanfare two giant pandas - Meng Meng and Jiao Qing - were flown to Berlin on a special chartered plane from China. The pair is on loan to the Berlin Zoo for 15 years. Yet at this point no one knows if the cuddly couple has already booked a return flight.


Not as orderly as it may seem from the outside

Despite the growing number of passengers this year, German airlines have received a lot of criticism. In July, the European Court of Justice ruled that companies could not levy additional fees if passengers cancel flights. And in August, government officials demanded that the country's air passenger duty be scrapped.


After a while they all start to look alike

Once you reach your destination there is no guarantee that your luggage will be there. Passengers of Air Berlin know this problem better than most and it's one of the reasons why Germany's second-biggest airline recently declared bankruptcy. At this point it is still unclear if the company will be taken over or split up.