Why Did Berlin Historically Have So Many Airports?

Few cities in the world are so closely associated with their airports as Berlin. It’s not only that Berlin has had so many airports, but their names have been imprinted into 20th-century history. Tempelhof, Tegel, Schönefeld, and Brandenburg are known the world over – for different reasons.

Berlin’s iconic Tempelhof Airport. Photo: Getty Images

Berlin’s first commercial airport is less well known. Johannisthal Airfield opened in southeastern Berlin in 1909 and did brisk business during WWI and, interestingly, as a base for airships. While Johannisthal Airport existed until the 1990s, the construction of Tempelhof Airport after WWI marked the decline of Johannisthal. The airport is now a university campus.

Tempelhof first accepted planes in the 1920s, but it didn’t become a fully functioning airport until the 1930s. The airport went on to become a European icon. It was built by the Nazi Government and was for a time among the world´s busiest airports.

After WWII, Tempelhof was the one end of the Berlin airlift, an airbridge bringing vital supplies to a divided city. In later years, Berlin (and jets) outgrew Tempelhof, and the airport closed in 2008. But its role in WWII and spectacular terminal made it one of the world’s best-known airports.

East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport a cold war survivor

After WWII, when Berlin got partitioned, the Russians took over Schönefeld Airport to serve as East Berlin’s main airport. Certain airlines flew to Schönefeld, and certain airlines flew to West Berlin’s airports.

Schönefeld never achieved the fame of Tempelhof. Perhaps that’s because Schönefeld lacked the architectural splendor of Tempelhof. Equally, Hollywood never had access to and never immortalized Schönefeld on film.

These days, Schönefeld has become a part of Berlin Brandenburg Airport. The old Schönefeld terminal has been kept for low-cost carriers, although the airport has closed the terminal for at least a year to save costs.

Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport became a part of Berlin Brandenburg Airport. Photo: calfier001 via Wikimedia Commons

Tegel Airport built in 90 days

Back in postwar Berlin, the Allies famously built Tegel Airport in just 90 days to assist with the airlift and take some load off Tempelhof. It was an airport of its time – mid 20th century, functional, and not made with an eye for future traffic increases.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that commercial airlines began moving flights to Tegel en masse. With the advent of the jet age, Tempelhof’s runways were too short, and its location meant expansion wasn’t an option.

Tegel Airport really hit its stride in the 1970s and 80s, serving as Berlin’s main commercial airport. That role got a further boost after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and several airlines abandoned Schönefeld.

In recent decades, Tegel has been cramped, overcrowded, and not a terribly good passenger experience. However, the airport successfully cemented itself into history as Germany’s number one airport in the jet age. For many contemporary travelers, Tegel was their introduction to Germany.

Berlin’s Tegel Airport was built in the wake of WWII and only recently closed. Photo: Hans Knips via Wikimedia Commons

Brandenburg Airport leaves a different legacy

But the demands on Tegel saw Berlin build a new airport. Planning for Brandenburg Airport began in the 1990s, and construction began in 2006. Until it finally opened in 2020, the design problems, construction delays, and cost overruns turned Brandenburg into a global comedic punching bag.

These days, Brandenburg is up and running, and by all reports, it’s a perfectly nice airport. Yet, its legacy won’t be as a swish new piece of transportation infrastructure. Instead, the airport will be remembered for how long it took to build.