Referendum could not save Berlin Tempelhof

 - June 9, 2008, 7:27 AM

Berlin Tempelhof airport will almost certainly close on October 31. In a public referendum held on April 27, a majority of voters– some 60 percent–favored keeping the downtown airport open, but they represented only 21.3 percent of the city’s 2.425 million electors. A quorum of 25 percent was required for the vote to qualify as a recommendation to the Berlin Senate, which was to make the final decision.

“We needed another 80,000 supporters,” Bernd Gans, president of the German Business Aviation Association (GBAA), told AIN. GBAA is now appealing to the Senate’s “democratic understanding,” arguing that the local government was elected by even fewer people than the number of pro-Tempelhof voters.

Socialist mayor Klaus Wowereit has long planned to close Tempelhof. The opposition of Christian Democrats and Liberals supported keeping the airport open, as did Chancellor Angela Merkel. Gans noted that the Eastern part of Berlin voted against Tempelhof, while the Western part voted in favor of keeping it open.

Supporters are beginning to doubt that they will be able to save the downtown airport. The new Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) airport, developed on the site of the existing Schoenefeld airport, is scheduled to be fully operational in 2011 or 2012. In the meantime, Gans said local authorities might want to address possible capacity shortage by keeping Tempelhof open.

City officials have been trying to close Tempelhof for the past decade to force operators to relocate operations to BBI, located about 13 miles southeast of the city. The fight to keep Tempelhof in operation gathered momentum in 2006. Earlier this year, Tempelhof supporters managed comfortably to surpass the required number of votes– 170,000–to allow the full public referendum to take place.

At one point, supporters proposed keeping Tempelhof open by radically changing the use of the airport. Last year, CED GmbH, a joint venture led by Fred Langhammer, the former CEO of cosmetic company Estée Lauder, and Ronald Lauder, founder Estée’s son, was ready to invest E350 million ($530 million) to turn Tempelhof’s terminal buildings into a health center.

The project was contingent upon the airport’s remaining a gateway for wealthy customers to get in using business aircraft. German rail operator Die Bahn had offered to operate the airport. It would have been open to all business aviation–not only those aircraft carrying clinic patients.

Tempelhof can be seen as a historical airport. At the time of its construction by the Nazis, its terminal was the biggest ever. In 1948, it was the beachhead for the Western Allies’ Berlin Airlift.