Escape pod to capitalism

A flight out of the airport in the 1980s is the only our editor is sentimental about.

The little airport that kept on giving - back in 1982.
The little airport that kept on giving - back in 1982.

Berlin-Sunday will be Tegel’s last day as an airport and sentimental obituaries have been popping up everywhere, mostly from diehard West Berliners who are going to miss being able to board a plane a 15-minute taxi ride away from their home.

On a deeper level, I suspect Tegel nostalgics are simply mourning the passing of their own lives. Arriving or departing lovers, the splitting or reuniting of families, the departure for or return from travel adventures. Such events often take place in airports so it’s only natural that memories of them remain linked to them.

I was 14 the first time I saw the airport. In the summer of 1986, I visited East Germany with my West German grandparents for four or five days. We stayed with my grandfather’s old Wehrmacht buddy in Potsdam, a scientist who had made a career for himself as a high-ranking official in the East German government.

As a kid growing up in the United States, my brief trip to East Germany felt like a foray into a strange black-and-white, rather un-fun, alternate universe.

Upon arrival, we had to register at a grey police station staffed by grouchy Volkspolizei cops. We tried to buy ice cream in downtown Potsdam, but there was a shortage. We did some sightseeing around Alexanderplatz and ate a stodgy schnitzel in the Nikolaiviertel.

We drove almost right up to the Brandenburg Gate from the eastern side, with the Wall blocking our view towards Tiergarten: the guards, the barbed wire, the tank barriers. To my ignorant, oblivious teenage self it drove home the reality of East Germany’s depressing forced separation from West Berlin, and the rest of the world.

After my first and only city break in a Communist country, I was to fly back to the US alone – from Tegel Airport in the West. I bid farewell to our East German host and my grandparents (who were driving back) at the Tränenpalast - the Palace of Tears was a checkpoint where East and West Germans separated after visits - at Friedrichstraße station. Waving my West German passport at the guards in an oppressive tunnel beneath the station, I felt rather privileged. Before I knew it, I was taking the U6 up to Kurt-Schumacher-Platz and jumping on a bus to Tegel.

Arriving at the airport felt like a return to glittering modernity, a kind of escape pod to capitalism. I walked around around the entire terminal a few times - confused by its hexagonal layout - and then a plane whisked me away from the misery of divided Cold War Berlin back to the United States. I was a spoilt little capitalist brat, it seems like now, my American life unbelievably cushy compared to what I had perceived to be the drab reality of the East. Communism wasn’t for me, I remember thinking.

A few years back, a campaign to save Tegel from closure that was supported by the FDP and the AfD got to the point that a citizen’s referendum was held in 2017. And even though the yes votes (991,832) outnumbered the nos (737,216), the city government chose to ignore the plebiscite. Under Berlin law, a referendum is only a recommendation – the government isn’t obliged to follow the voters' will.

At the time, it was believed that the delayed BER would be too small to handle growing passenger numbers when it finally opened. Thanks to corona, though, we no longer have to worry about that possibility. And besides, good old Schönefeld – Tegel’s poor cousin in the East – will be kept open for now as “BER Terminal 5.”

After I moved to Berlin in 1999, flying out of Tegel remained a pleasant experience for a few more years. But once mass tourism found its way here, once the low-cost airlines began using the airport, the sparkling little gem mutated into just another crap, mediocre travel experience – from overcrowded TXL buses to charmless, uncomfortable terminals that were hastily erected during the nine-year BER delay and grimy, cramped toilets. Not to mention the increasing burden of noise pollution.

So, I won’t miss what became of Tegel – just the airport I briefly knew one summer day in 1986.

Maurice Frank is the editor of Berliner Zeitung English Edition