A Brief History Of Frankfurt Airport

Germany is an interesting country when it comes to aviation, in the sense that its busiest airport doesn’t serve its capital city. Berlin has served as its Hauptstadt since reunification in 1990, but its key hub for air travel is instead located in Frankfurt, some 550 km (340 miles) away. Let’s take a look at the history of Frankfurt Airport, which has become a focal point for both passenger and cargo traffic, not just in Germany but also for Europe as a whole.

Frankfurt Airport Departure Board
Frankfurt is known for retaining its old-school departure board! Photo: Fraport AG

Initially located elsewhere

Frankfurt’s primary airport has not always been situated in the location that it finds itself in today. The idea for such a facility arose after the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-Aktiengesellschaft / DELAG (German Airship Travel Corporation) came into existence in November 1909. It commenced operations the following year, in June 1910.

Shortly afterward, the company set about constructing an airport in Bockenheim, a district in western Frankfurt. This opened in 1912 under the name Luftschiffhafen am Rebstock (Rebstock Airship Station). It later became known as Frankfurt-Rebstock Airport, and underwent an expansion after the First World War. However, its days were numbered.

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Frankfurt Airport From Above
Frankfurt Airport (FRA) from above. The original site was located elsewhere, in the district of Bockenheim. Photo: McNam via Wikimedia Commons

In 1924, a study found that there was minimal scope for further expansion, and demand soon outgrew the facility. The foundation of Deutsche Luft Hansa in 1926 catalyzed this, and caused growth in civilian air travel amid the Roaring Twenties. Plans were drawn up for a new airport, but the Great Depression followed soon afterward, putting them on hold.

The new site

Despite the Great Depression having initially halted plans for a new airport large enough to serve Frankfurt’s growing demand, they arose again a few years later. After the Nazi Party seized power in 1933, it revived these plans to construct a new facility to the southwest of the city. The airport opened officially in July 1936, and remains on this site today.

It was named the Flug- und Luftschiffhafen Rhein-Main (Rhein-Main Airport and Airship Station). Rhein-Main refers to the wider metropolitan area where Frankfurt is located, named after the two main rivers that pass through it. Its significance as an airship station was short-lived, as the 1937 Hindenburg disaster spelled the end for this form of air travel.

The airship age ended just before the Second World War. Photo: Arquivo Nacional do Brasil via Flickr

The Second World War

After the outbreak of the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) took control of the new airport. By this time, all of the foreign carriers serving Frankfurt had withdrawn. May 1940 saw the first Luftwaffe bombers depart the airport for France. By the end of the conflict, the airport’s runway had been destroyed by allied airstrikes (in 1944).

The Nazis themselves had also destroyed many of the airport’s buildings by the time US forces captured it in March 1945. As such, they built a temporary runway after Germany’s surrender, and established the Rhein-Main Air Base to the south of the airport. This would later become a key departure point for allied aircraft during the Berlin Airlift of 1948.

Front Gate of Rhein-Main Air Base
The front gate of the former Rhein-Main Air Base, which closed in 2005. Its site is set to be used for a new terminal, opening in 2026. Photo: Getty Images

The post-war era

The 1950s saw the airport experience considerable growth, with restrictions on German air passengers having been lifted. By 1953, annual passenger figures had reached 500,000. Aircraft movements were also on the up, with the airport processing an average of 100-120 daily arrivals and departures by 1955. Then came the advent of jet aircraft.

The Boeing 707 is widely considered to have been the aircraft that most significantly catalyzed the ‘Jet Age,’ an era of social and technological change. It made its first flight in 1957. That year also saw the airport extend its northern runway (it had two at the time) to handle larger jets, reaching 3,900 meters. The southern one hit 3,750 meters in 1964.

Iran Air Being 707
FRA extended its runways to handle jets like the 707. Photo: Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons

The runways were not the only aspect of Frankfurt Airport that experienced notable expansions in the post-war era. A new terminal was constructed in the airport’s northeast corner in 1958, which helped it on its way to becoming one of Europe’s key passenger hubs. However, demand quickly outgrew this facility, and another terminal opened in 1972.

Additional runways

As we have established, Frankfurt Airport initially had two runways in the post-war era, each extended to nearly four kilometers long following the advent of the jet age. However, as traffic and continued to increase, a third strip became necessary.

Runway 18 opened in 1984 despite considerable opposition, and is only used for southerly departures. It measures 4,000 meters in length. While the first two runways were paved with asphalt, this one broke the mold by instead being paved with concrete.

Frankfurt Runway 18
Southerly departures take off from runway 18 at Frankfurt. Photo: Fraport AG

The airport has also added a fourth, northern runway, which opened in 2011. It runs parallel to the original two runways, and is designated as 07L/25R. This strip is also paved with concrete, but is considerably shorter than its counterparts at 2,800 meters long.

This landing strip has recently been closed at times during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This has allowed German flag carrier and Star Alliance founding member Lufthansa to park some of its otherwise dormant Boeing 747s there. However, as of this month, Frankfurt Airport has been able to put all of its runways back into action once again.

A second terminal and railway station

Corresponding to the increase in runways, the number of terminals at Frankfurt Airport has also doubled. While its present Terminal 1 is still standing 49 years after its opening in 1972, it has since been joined by Terminal 2. This facility opened in 1994, allowing the airport to increase its annual capacity to an impressive 54 million passengers.

ICE1 @ Frankfurt Flughafen 07Jun19
Frankfurt Airport now has two railway stations serving regional and long-distance, high-speed traffic. Photo: Jake Hardiman | Simple Flying

Shortly afterward, a second railway station followed. The airport’s original railway station had opened along with Terminal 1 back in the 1970s. However, the opening of a new high-speed line between Frankfurt and Cologne prompted the opening of a second station in 1999.

This new facility, as seen above, serves Deutsche Bahn’s long-distance, high-speed ‘Intercity Express’ (ICE) trains, as well as semi-fast ‘Inter City’ (IC) services. Meanwhile, regional services operated by the likes of DB Regio and the Rhein-Main S-Bahn depart from the original station, which is situated underground near Terminal 1’s B concourse.

Overall, Frankfurt is a fascinating airport with a diverse operational history. It has earned its place as one of Europe’s most significant hubs for air travel, and the recent re-opening of all of its runways and terminals will hopefully herald the beginning of a strong recovery.

What do you make of Frankfurt Airport? Have you ever traveled to or from Germany’s busiest airport? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.