How Berlin Ended Up with Four Airports

Berlin’s status as a divided city during the post-war period has led to a number of peculiarities. Many public facilities and cultural institutions come in twos or more. Thus, Berlin boasts more zoos, opera houses, large squares etc. than many other cities of similar size – and more airports, too! Since construction started on the new international Berlin Brandenburg Airport, these have recently been in the news quite a lot. We think it’s time for a round-up of historic facts and recent events – everything you need to know about Berlin’s not one, not two, but four airports.


4 Airports, 4 Allied Powers

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Berlin was divided into four sectors, each of which was controlled by one of the victors. The four allied powers all needed air force bases, and that’s how Berlin ended up with four airports, all of which remained in operation until 1994.


Airports Berlin – Source: Wikimedia

The smallest of these was Royal Air Force Station Gatow in the district of Spandau. Tempelhof in the heart of Berlin was operated by the Americans, while the airport in the northern district of Tegel belonged to the French and Schönefeld in the southeast was located in the Soviet occupation zone and later became the GDR’s most important airport.

RAF Gatow

Royal Air Force Station Gatow was primarily used as a military airport as well as for state visits by British dignitaries. While there were occasional civilian flights from here to West-Germany, RAF Gatow was far less important for civilian air traffic than Tempelhof and Tegel.

Entrance Airport Gatow
Entrance Airport Gatow – Source: Wikimedia

Following the withdrawal of British forces from Berlin on 18 June 1994, the airport was closed and the site developed for residential use. Today, there are two schools, supermarkets and a new residential development on the former runway.

For anybody interested in military history or historic planes, the museum housed in the airport’s old hangars makes a great daytrip destination whatever the weather.

Chipmunk Aircraft
Chipmunk Aircraft at the military history museum Gatow – Source: Wikimedia

Tempelhof Airport

Situated in a central location in the heart of Berlin, Tempelhof became famous during the 322-day Berlin Airlift in 1948/49, commemorated in the nearby Airlift Memorial. Starting in 1951, western airlines BEA, Air France and Pan Am starting operating civilian flights to and from the US Air Force base. Following German reunification and the subsequent withdrawal of Allied forces, Tempelhof was used exclusively as a civilian airport until it was closed in 2008.

Airport Tempelhof
Airport Tempelhof – Source: Pixabay

Since its re-opening as a public park, the former airfield has become an extremely popular destination for barbecues, picnics, a number of urban gardening projects and festivals, as well as for runners, cyclists and kiteboarders, giving Berlin – a city already rich in parks and green spaces – another large public playing field. If you’d like to find out more about the site’s unique history, come along to the Open Day in the former airport building on 18 November 2017 or book a guided tour of the iconic terminal and other parts of the huge facility.

Tegel Airport

Tegel Airport was built in a record 90 days to take some of the pressure off Tempelhof during the Airlift. The hexagonal main building, which is still in used today, was not opened until 1974. With a total of 21.2 million passengers per year, Tegel is currently Germany’s fourth-busiest airport after Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf.

Airport Tegel
Airport Tegel Stamp – Source: Wikimedia

In recent years, Tegel Airport has become something of a political hot potato due to its planned closure as soon as the new international Berlin Brandenburg Airport opens.

The site has long been slated for development as an Industrial and Research Park intended to attract start-ups, HE institutions, industrial enterprises and research facilities.

Airport Tegel
Airport Tegel – Source: berlin-airport.de

However, a number of local initiatives have sprung up in recent years to protest against the airport’s closure. A successful petition led to a referendum during the recent general elections, which the proponents of keeping the airport operational won by a narrow margin. However, since the outcome of the referendum wasn’t binding, the facility’s future is still up in the air.

Schönefeld and Berlin Brandenburg Airports

Which finally leads us all the way east to Schönefeld Airport. Opened in 1946, the airport soon became the GDR’s central air transport hub, with state-owned airline Interflug operating flights to and from 53 destinations on four continents.

Airport Schönefeld
Airport Schönefeld – Source: berlin-airport.de

After German reunification, the airport entered into a period of slow decline when Interflug was liquidated. While other airlines used Tegel as their local base, the arrival of EasyJet gave Schönefeld a new lease of life. Today, Schönefeld is the budget airline’s second-largest base in Europe.

Airport Berlin-Brandenburg
Airport Berlin-Brandenburg – Source: berlin-airport.de

Like Tegel, Schönefeld is supposed to close as soon as the new airport is finished. However, progress on the new facility has been beset by a number of problems ever since construction work started in 2006. The grand opening is currently scheduled for autumn 2019, though it’s far from clear whether this deadline will be met.