Berliners Debate Fate of Blockade Savior

BERLIN -- At the age of 7, Mercedes Wild waved excitedly at each U.S. plane that circled over her Berlin home and landed at Tempelhof Airport, packed with supplies to feed Berliners during the Soviets' Cold War blockade.

Today, Wild, 67, is fighting against plans to shut down the giant airport site in the center of Berlin, which is almost the size of New York's Central Park.

After years of debate, Berliners are to vote on the closure of the Nazi-built complex on Sunday.

"It's quite emotional. The airport is a symbol of freedom," Wild said, standing in the almost empty, 1,200-meter-long building just a 10-minute drive away from the Brandenburg Gate.

"I'm fighting for the future, the future of Berlin. Our economy needs this airport," Wild said.

During the Berlin airlift between 1948 and 1949, Western forces flew hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies into Tempelhof after the Soviets blocked off Berlin's Western-occupied sectors.

But air traffic has slumped since the days when the so-called raisin-bombers landed in intervals of 90 seconds at the airport. Last year, only 350,000 of Berlin's 20 million air travelers went through the loss-making site.

The decision whether to keep Tempelhof has turned into a high-profile battle, pitting Berlin's popular mayor, Social Democrat (SPD) Klaus Wowereit, against conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel and many members of her Christian Democrats.

"The continued operation of Tempelhof isn't just significant to the economy and to jobs," Merkel told BZ daily last week. "To many people and to me personally, this airport, with the airlift, is a symbol of the city's history."

Merkel has urged Berliners to participate in Sunday's vote, although its result will not be binding.

Wowereit wants to close Tempelhof in October, calling inner-city airport an "anachronism" that exposes residents to noise and safety risks and weighs on economy and environment.

Dubbed the "mother of all airports" by architect Sir Norman Foster, the neoclassical terminal of Tempelhof was designed by Ernst Sagebiel. Between 1936 and 1941, forced laborers built it in the monolithic style preferred by Adolf Hitler.

The limestone building is flanked by crescent-shaped hangars which follow the curve of the oval airfield. A canopy was designed to allow jets to pull out of the rain.

But modern jumbos are too big to fit under the roof or use the short runways, and the airport has lost 115 million euros in the past 10 years, Berlin's SPD says.

To make Berlin more accessible and competitive, authorities have decided to build a new 3 billion euro airport south of the city, replacing the existing three airports.

"Our future is in BBI," says Wowereit, who hopes that the new Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI) complex will create some 40,000 jobs when it opens in 2011.

Tempelhof critics point to court decisions stating that BBI can only open if Berlin's other airports shut down and say keeping Tempelhof will spark a wave of legal proceedings and delay BBI.

Some residents see a more concrete nuisance in Tempelhof, with its runway just 100 meters away from their apartments.

"I live right in the entry lane. Wherever I go inside my house, I can't escape the noise," said resident Anne Schmidt, banging drums during a protest march against the airport.

Wowereit's government wants to fill the giant airfield with parks, apartments, create sites for firms researching environmental technology and use the listed airport building for exhibitions or film sets before its final usage is decided.

Surveys show a majority of Berliners want to keep Tempelhof open. The pro-airport campaigners -- a colorful mix of businessmen, singers, actors and CDU politicians -- hope that even though the outcome of Sunday's vote is not binding, the voice of 2.4 million Berlin voters will not go unheard.

"Cosmopolitan city or province? Save Tempelhof!," read the pro-airport posters plastered around the capital.

"An airport for the super-rich? We won't be fooled," anti-airport campaigners respond on their flyers.

Tempelhof is popular with private jet operators who fly businessmen to Germany's capital.

The ICAT group of pro-airport campaigners says Tempelhof could make a significant profit if managed efficiently, arguing that empty office space and inefficient lets are mainly to blame for the airport's current losses.

Closing the site, as Wowereit wants, would incur annual maintenance costs of 18 million to 25 million euros, with up to 850 million euros more needed to make the site fit for non-air traffic usage, ICAT says.

"Tempelhof is a great location. It's attractive to business travelers, with the government and business districts so nearby," ICAT spokesman Malte Pereira said, comparing the Berlin site to London's City Airport.

"Tempelhof can bring economic power and jobs to this city," Pereira said, watching five passengers slowly cross the 150-meter, deserted check-in hall.