Berlin (AFP) – Berliners have voted to keep open the Cold War-era city airport Tegel, threatening political turbulence in the German capital and more trouble for Chancellor Angela Merkel after a bruising election victory.
Tegel or TXL has long been marked for closure, but an embarrassing years-long delay in opening its larger replacement airport BER led to a popular push to keep operating it after all as the capital’s second airport.
In a referendum held on the same day as the general election, some 56.1 percent of voters supported the drive to keep Tegel open, the final results showed late Sunday.
The “Save Tegel” initiative has delighted frequent flyers who love the short bus or taxi ride to the 1970s-era air hub in the city’s northwest, a relic of Berlin’s east-west division.
But it dismayed 300,000 residents living with the daily roar of jets above their homes, who would also face a drop in the value of their properties if TXL keeps operating and would be sure to fight back with mass lawsuits.
Berlin town hall had urged a “no” vote and promoted the long-standing plan to use the Tegel site for badly-needed new housing, a science university and an IT business start-up hub.
The vote is not legally binding, but all agree it heightens political pressure in a dispute that even divides the centre-right bloc of newly re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The pro-Tegel campaign was driven by the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) party, who staged a political comeback in Sunday’s election after a dismal result four years ago and are seen as a potential coalition partner for Merkel.
But the two natural allies failed to garner enough votes for a parliamentary majority on Sunday, and may have to enter into a coalition government with the Green party, which campaigned against Tegel airport.
– Ghost airport –
Merkel has so far maintained that, under established law, TXL must close when BER finally opens, possibly in 2019.
However, even her Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt of the Bavarian CSU party last week reiterated that BER will be too small when it opens, and that Berlin needs additional capacity to handle rapidly growing air traffic in the era of budget airlines.
“I can well imagine a capital city with two airports,” Dobrindt said last week.
Berlin airports chief Engelbert Luetke-Daldrup, on the other hand, has argued that run-down Tegel’s renovation would cost more than one billion euros, plus unknown compensation for affected residents.
At the core of it all is the scandal-plagued BER airport project, now delayed five years with no opening date in sight and a laughing stock in a country known for engineering prowess and punctuality.
The massive delay has also been cited as one factor in the demise of Air Berlin, Germany’s second biggest carrier which had banked on using the shiny new BER as its hub but now faces being carved up by its rivals.
Decades in the planning but marred by cascading technical problems, BER has cost some six billion euros ($7.2 billion) but still sits empty as Germany’s most notorious planning disaster.
An empty subway train drives daily into its ghostly terminal daily to circulate air and prevent mold from growing on the walls.
Since the last delay, city officials have simply declined to commit to a new ribbon-cutting day.