Farewell to Tegel Airport, the German Cold War relic that nostalgia couldn't save

Berlin Brandenburg finally opens on Saturday, heralding the end for an airport that once represented the future

Powered by automated translation

Proximity to the city, drop off at departure gates and on the plane within half an hour of arriving. It sounds like a dream.

This is what Berlin’s Tegel Airport offered when its iconic hexagonal terminal opened in 1974.

It was a triumph of function and passenger efficiency.

Tegel cut through the Cold War gloom to represent the jet set age of the future but on November 8, it closes for good.

Tegel’s long goodbye has prompted an outpouring of nostalgia among Berliners. The relic has become part of the city’s identity, representing freedom in a time of blockades, the Berlin Wall and superpower rivalry.

This was Germany's first drive-in airport. It was all utterly cinematic

It has a history stretching back about 100 years. Tegel originally hosted Prussian airships and during the 1930s, a team under Wernher von Braun used the site for early rocket experiments.

A modern runway opened in 1948 to help with the Berlin airlift and Tegel as we know it was born.

But Terminal A set Tegel apart. Travellers today expect long walks to departure gates through a relentless and infuriating array of shops.

Tegel’s concrete hexagon allowed passengers to pull up in a car, be dropped off at their departure gate and step onto their flight within minutes. It was a bold vision.

Terminal A was designed to get people through the airport as quickly as possible. Modern airports are doing the opposite.

Buildings that once championed flight now champion commerce.


"Tegel … [created] ballet-like interactions between cars and planes," wrote Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries in the Hidden Europe magazine.

"The highway from the heart of Berlin sweeps northwest over grand bridges, gliding into a tunnel - with planes taxiing above - to emerge in the interior of an open hexagon where passengers could be dropped off right at their departure gate.
"This was Germany's first drive-in airport … It was all utterly cinematic."
Tegel did have defects. Public transport links were poor, it struggled to cope with rising passenger numbers and modern extras such as charge points were hard to find. Arriving there – particularly in later years - really did feel like landing in the 1970s.

"I headed for the designated 'charging point' to restore my phone," wrote Financial Times business journalist Michael Skapinker, on a return visit to the airport in 2019.

“There were two wall plugs, probably originally installed for the cleaners’ Hoovers.”

Tegel was also creaking under the rising passenger numbers. Designed to handle about 2.5 million passengers a year, around 24 million people used the airport last year.

The addition of terminals that felt like large warehouses did not help. It survived over the past few years only because of delays to Berlin Brandenburg, which finally opens on Saturday.

Yet Tegel outlived Tempelhof, one of Europe’s famed pre-World War II airports and base for the Berlin airlift. It closed in 2008. Schonefeld, the airport of the former East Berlin, closed on Monday.

The grim Soviet-era edifice, which has now become a mere terminal at Berlin Brandenburg, evokes few of the warm memories that Tegel does.

Berliners even tried to keep Tegel open. In a non-binding vote in 2017, 56 per cent of residents voted in favour of retaining it.

The result was ignored and the site is to be redeveloped as a residential and business park. Nostalgia was not enough to save Tegel. Airports and passengers have moved on. Tegel was the future...once.


Inside Berlin's new Brandenburg airport