It was with a not insignificant amount of regret that I read of the last departure from and closure of Berlin’s Tegel airport in early November 2020. My Twitter feed was filled with photographs celebrating its brutalist architecture, alongside misty eyed reminiscences of its idiosyncrasies and quirks.
I was full of regret because, in spite of having spent a good deal of time travelling between Britain and Berlin over the past fifteen years, I’d never flown into or out of Tegel. All of my trips, whether from Bristol, Gatwick, Glasgow or Luton, were with Easyjet, and flew in to the city’s Schönefeld Airport. It was as though I was missing out on some shared experienced that binds those of us who hold Berlin close to their hearts. A weird kind of lacuna, a nagging sense of somehow having missed out on something that everyone else took for granted.
By contrast no one, I noted, was filling my Twitter feed with nostalgic outpourings of grief about Schönefeld (SXF). This may have something to do with the fact that, while Tegel has closed and will soon be transformed into an urban technology park, Schönefeld will remain for now, albeit as a smaller part (Terminal 5) of the much larger Berlin Brandenburg (BER) airport that has been constructed close by. But perhaps it may have something to do with the fact that Tegel was somehow more pleasant that Schönefeld, or possibly less pleasant, depending on your point of view.
Either way, I’d seen no lament over Schönefeld’s demise. For sure, the next time I get to Berlin, once the world has returned to some semblance of normality, I will be just a little sad that I won’t be passing through the narrow corridors and lurid orange departure halls of Schönefeld. Since the first time I arrived in Berlin fifteen years ago, in 2005, about the time when work on the new Berlin airport was just starting, the city’s airports have attracted faint praise at best. There was something charming in the way that Berlin, transforming itself at such pace at the heart of an increasingly confident reunified German nation, continued to be served by three (and then two) airports that were historical anachronisms, barely fit for the demands of today’s air travel industry.
Tegel and Schönefeld’s histories originate in Cold War-era Berlin. They were each borne out of specific circumstances, of a contrasting blend of geographical constraints, political ideologies, passenger needs, architectural aspirations. In post-reunification Germany, and with the advent of cheap flights and budget airlines, the two airports appeared to cater for two different types of air traveller. While Tegel offered long- as well as short-haul flights for established carriers like Lufthansa and British Airways, Schönefeld attracted the interest of budget airline newcomers: Easyjet, Germanwings, and later on, Ryanair. Two different airports serving two different cities? One focused on business, on Berlin’s reemergence as an important economic hub, the other catering for crowds of backpackers and tourists in search of fabled nightclubs and ‘poor but sexy’ t-shirts.
When I started travelling into and out of Schönefeld in 2005, the airport’s diminutive and parochial qualities, compared to the UK airports I was flying to and from: Gatwick, Glasgow, even Bristol, were rather charming. I can look back with fondness at the airport’s railway station, with its shadowy underpass lined with ticket machines around which bemused tourists clustered, and snack bars with astroturfed seating areas, where bored taxi drivers sat slumped in plastic patio chairs. Even for a seasoned Schönefeld user like myself, finding the ramp to the right platform was more a question of luck than judgement.
The arced and covered walkway linking the station to the airport terminal building, where travellers were serenaded by accordion-wielding Berliners, was also a special feature of Schönefeld. On arrival in Berlin, it was the first bit of ‘outside’ to be properly experienced, and my memories of the city’s meteorological extremes, of blistering cold in the dark recesses of winter and blazing heat at the height of summer, are inextricably linked to this walkway more than any other part of the city.
Whenever I left Berlin I always did so with a heavy heart, and no amount of orange paint in the departure lounge was ever sufficient to lift my spirits. In our post-9/11 world, departure lounges are invariably stressful experiences, in which queues, security gates, half-empty bottles of water and ziplock bags overfilled with travel-size toiletries are a staple. I rarely checked a suitcase in as I preferred to travel light. Still, I had enough with me to ensure that going to the mens’ toilets, only slightly larger than a walk-in cupboard in which two people could barely squeeze past each other, was always a challenging logistical exercise.
Things didn’t improve airside, where I and my fellow travellers found a desolate space of comedic proportions, with none of the lounges or food courts you’d expect to find in other major city airports. Instead, Schönefeld comprised of one long corridor that was lined with seats that were invariably always occupied. Besides one or two shops selling snacks and souvenirs, the main catering choices consisted of a sandwich bar, a Burger King and an Irish Pub. My preferred method of coping with this space for the hour I had to kill before my gate number was announced was to walk back and forth from one end to the other, all the while trying to come to terms with the outright hopelessness of my surroundings.
And yet I shall miss Schönefeld, just as others miss Tegel. In many ways, setting aside the farcical backstory of the construction and delayed opening of the newish Berlin Brandenburg Airport, that Berlin should now have a glossy new airport on its outskirts that could be a glossy new airport on the outskirts of any major European city seems apt. Over the past two decades the old spaces of Berlin have been filled in and rebuilt, slowly erasing the differences that the once existed between the old eastern and western sectors. Berlin today is a more homogeneous city than the one I first encountered in 2005, though that’s not to say that it no longer wears its history on its sleeve. It does, it’s just harder to identify now.