- - Sunday, June 24, 2012

BERLIN — Ten thousand guests were invited to the party. Caterers stood at the ready. More than 150 retail establishments had hired workers to stock shops and restaurants.

Lufthansa and AirBerlin had scheduled inaugural flights, sold tickets and organized a day to be remembered.

The much-touted opening of the Willy Brandt Brandenburg International Airport, years in the making, was scheduled for June 3.

But it was not to be.

To the humiliation of the nation, the opening was postponed - and not for the first time. The opening date had been planned first for October 2011, then June 3 and now March 17, 2013.

What happened to the celebrated German efficiency and pinpoint promptness?

The official explanation is that the airport’s emergency fire safety and smoke exhaust systems were not functioning properly, but that explanation was not widely believed.

An engineer for the electronics conglomerate Siemens Corp., which designed and built some of the airport’s equipment, said off the record that 700 workers had been hired to operate the equipment manually until it could function automatically.

Berlin’s mayor and members of the city council had been told as early as February that the airport would not be ready by June 3. It wasn’t only a question of the fire safety equipment but lots of other things that couldn’t be resolved by then.

Nevertheless, the decision was made to open June 3.

German aviation history

The new airport has been beset with problems from the beginning, the first over what to call it.

Candidates for the honor included Claus von Stauffenberg, the Roman Catholic aristocrat and German officer who organized the failed plot to kill Hitler in July 1944, and the actress Marlene Dietrich, who chose to leave Germany as the Nazis came to power.

Once the airport was named for Willy Brandt, the longtime postwar mayor of Berlin, German chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, problems accumulated: construction delays, cost overruns, concerns about flight patterns and the bankruptcy of the original developer.

Now Berlin is faced with not only international embarrassment but also an additional cost of millions of euros to reimburse vendors, restaurants and airlines for the expenses and lost revenue.

Lawsuits await, and so, perhaps, does a criminal investigation into what happened at the $3.2 billion facility.

Airports have been crucial to the city’s history. Berlin has three, perhaps a lot for a relatively small capital of 3.3 million.

Tempelhof, which means “Templar courtyard,” was the first, and destined to become the most famous, built on the site of Knights Templar land in medieval Berlin. Orville Wright made a demonstration flight there in 1909.

Tempelhof was opened in 1923, and a decade later the Nazis replaced the first terminal. Adolf Hitler had dreams of Tempelhof as the gateway to Europe and a symbol of “Germania,” as der. Fuehrer intended to call his capital.

Close to the city center, it became one of the world’s most convenient and busiest airports.

At the end of World War II, Tempelhof was turned over to the U.S. in accordance with the Yalta agreements, and the Army assumed control and operation.

The airlift and ‘raisin bombs’

In June 1948, the Cold War blossomed, and the Soviets halted all land access to West Berlin, leaving only three 20 mile-wide air corridors connecting the American, British and French sectors to the outside world. The Soviets clearly intended to starve the West into submission.

President Harry S. Truman ordered the Berlin Airlift, informally called “Operation Vittles.”

From June 26 to Sept. 30, 1949, when the Soviets reopened land access, 4,700 tons of food and fuel were delivered daily to the city. The Allies flew more than 200,000 flights in one year. The airlift pulled various transports from retirement, giving the Douglas DC-3, the first airliner and the workhorse of the war, one last burst of activity.

American pilots dropped candy to the children living near Tempelhof, immortalizing themselves as the “candy bombers.” American candy-makers contributed tons of chocolate and other sweets. The Germans called the candy “rosienen bomben,” or raisin bombs.

Tempelhof remained Berlin’s major airport until October 2008, when it was closed with a festive “goodbye gala.” Since then, the airport, now a public park, has been used to host fairs and events. A two-hour tour of the airport, with several remaining buildings and artifacts of its celebrated history, is available daily.

Tempelhof was replaced by Tegel Airport, built on land that was once Prussian hunting grounds. Wernher von Braun experimented with rockets at Tegel.

The airport was scheduled to be closed the day the new airport opened, but it now has a stay of execution.

Schoenefeld, Berlin’s third airport and the site of the new Willy Brandt airport, located about 11 miles south of the city, was built in 1934 to accommodate the Henschel aircraft plant. During the Cold War, it served as the main airport of East Germany.

After the reunification of Germany, it was used primarily for low-cost airlines, such as Ryanair. When the new airport opens, Schoenefeld will be closed except for one runway that will become part of the new airport.

The new airport will be a state-of-the-art facility, the most modern in the world - and its planners are counting on it to enhance Berlin’s prestige as one of Europe’s great travel destinations.

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