A City Without Wings: Berlin’s Missing Airline History

A City Without Wings: Berlin’s Missing Airline History

DALLAS — Germany is one of the European countries most involved in the commercial aviation industry. Not only is it home to Airbus’ key manufacturing center at Hamburg Finkenwerder Airport (XFW), but it is also one of the largest aviation markets worldwide, represented by giants such as Lufthansa (LH), Eurowings (EW), and Condor (DE), among others.

Frankfurt International (FRA) is the country’s largest airport, with 70 million passengers passing through its gates in 2019. Apart from being the primary point of entry to Germany, FRA also serves as the primary hub for LH and all of its subsidiaries, including LH Cityline and LH Cargo. It also functions as a base airport for other important airlines such as DE, TUIfly (TU), EW, and EW Discover.

Moving to the next airport on the list, the Munich-Franz Josef Strauss Airport (MUC) is the second-largest entry point to the country, with 48 million passengers transferred in 2019. It is also the second base for the country’s largest airlines, including Lufthansa and its subsidiaries, DE, and EW. Additionally, Air Dolomiti (EN) serves as the main carrier flying passengers from MUC to southern European countries such as Italy.

However, it is not until the third place on the list that we find the airport that serves the capital city of Germany: the recently inaugurated Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER). Despite being in third place, the airport has only transported 30 million passengers since its opening in 2020.

While it was meant once to become the worldwide point of entry for all travelers flying to Berlin, it has not seen any traditional airline based there since its opening. This is a puzzling situation.

Why does the capital of Germany, with a population of over 3.6 million people and a brand new €6.5bn airport, still lack a well-established airline connecting Berlin with the rest of the world?

Opened in October 1923, Tempelhof was a crucial airport not only for Berlin but also for all of West Germany during the Cold War. Photo: Flughafen Berlin

Berlin’s Early Airport History

In the early XX century, the city of Berlin built its first large airport following the same pattern as all other big European capitals, which consisted in assigning a large airfield three miles away from the city center for the operation of small piston-engine driven airplanes. The Berlin-Tempelhof Airport (THF) was inaugurated on October 8, 1923, and it quickly became one of the most iconic airfields in Europe in the 20s, raising at the same time as Paris-Le Bourget (LBG) and Croydon Airport, UK.

The primary function of THF was to receive the flights of Deutsche Luft Hansa, the predecessor of today’s Lufthansa, from a shy European route network, including nearby destinations such as Zurich, Halle, Erfurt, or Stuttgart. During World War 2, all civil operations at THF were halted until 1945, and Germany decided not to switch the airport into a military base. Instead, the Luftwaffe operated their flights out of an airfield in Rangsdorf, south of the city of Berlin.

After the end of the war, and as the city of Berlin ended up being divided between the Allies, the airport of Berlin-Tempelhof remained under the control of the United States, and it served as a crucial strategic airfield for West Berlin especially during the massive operation known as the “Berlin Airlift” in 1948. Until 1949, Douglas C-47s and C-54s landed daily in West Berlin to deliver the necessary goods to the population in response to the closure of borders by the Soviet Union.

The Soviets, on the other hand, in need of their own airport as well on the East side of the city, occupied the aircraft plant of Schönefeld in 1945, which was used at the time for the construction of aircraft for the military by Henschel. Two years later, construction began for Berlin’s second civilian airport, independently of the development of Tempelhof.

For the next 40 years until the German Reunification, the city of Berlin saw the rapid development of two large airports: Berlin-Tempelhof (THF) and Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF), at the same time. However, while the Soviet Union established its own airline at Schönefeld Airport, Interflug (IF), West Germany ruled by the United States did not choose to continue reinstating Lufthansa in Berlin, but decided instead to establish Tempelhof as an additional hub for Pan American Airways (PA).

With the installation of PanAm as the main carrier in West Berlin, establishing a home airline for the city became unnecessary. Photo: Flughafen Berlin

The Rise of Tegel Airport

In support of the Berlin Airlift, the US Government started constructing a new airfield north of the city in August 1948 to accommodate all the excess demand for supplies that could not be handled by Tempelhof alone. This new airport, which was built with the longest 8.000ft runway in the world at the time, was named Berlin-Tegel Airport, and it was officially opened to operations on November 5th, 1948.

During the cold war, as technology advanced and air travel became more affordable for people, Berlin-Tempelhof slowly became too small to support the operations of larger jet aircraft such as the Boeing 707, the DeHavilland Comet, or the Caravelle, and the possibility of expansion disappeared as the city of Berlin had already surrounded the airport from all sides due to the growth of the population.

That is why, on January 2, 1960, Air France (AF) landed a Lockheed Superconstellation on the first commercial service from Paris-Orly (ORY) to Berlin-Tegel Airport (TXL), thus starting the transition of operations of all airlines flying to the city from Tempelhof to Tegel. AF was quickly followed by PanAm and British European Airways (BE), which took advantage of the modern terminal and long runways to introduce jet aircraft on their routes from all parts of Europe and America to Berlin.

The opening of Tegel Airport to commercial airline service did not impulse the city government to create a home national carrier. As West Berlin was controlled at the time by Western Allies United States, France, and the United Kingdom, the totality of the demand for air travel to the capital city from the West was covered and restricted to US, French, and British companies such as PanAm, Air France, and BEA.

Lufthansa, interestingly, was not included in the group of airlines allowed to fly into Tegel until the German Unification in 1990, despite being headquartered in Cologne, West Germany. As well, the airline was also already starting to experience significant growth in the nearby city of Frankfurt, thanks to its industrial development which led to an increase in population and demand for flights in and out of the city.

Blick auf Flugzeuge der DDR-Staatsairline Interflug. Bildquelle: Archiv FBB

Berlin’s Soviet Airline: Interflug

After the end of the Second World War, and as the already divided Berlin had seen the operation of two commercial airports on the Western side, the Soviet Union placed its focus on developing its own airfield south of the city: Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF). At the same time, and in order to finalize the foundation of a national Soviet single aviation market in East Germany, the government founded the first successful Berliner airline with the name Interflug (IF).

Interflug was set up by East Berlin as a backup charter air carrier on 18 September 1958. Its staff, route network, and part of the fleet were initially transferred from the remaining defunct Deutsche Lufthansa. During the 1960s, Interflug had already seen significant growth in all aspects and became a regular service airline.

The main focus of Interflug during the first years was the operation of regular passenger flights to big cities located mainly in the Soviet Union and countries of the Warsaw Pact, including Moscow (SVO), Belgrade (BEG), Prague (PRG), and Bucharest (BBU). It also served a small domestic network in Germany with cities like Leipzig (LEJ) and Dresden (DRS).

As with any other Soviet airline, the fleet of Interflug was strictly restricted to the operation of Ilyushin, Let, Aero, Tupolev, and Antonov aircraft. Until 1989, the Il-18 and Tu-134 in the short-haul and IL-62 in the long haul formed the real backbone of IF, which at its greatest extent had approximately 50 aircraft in its fleet and served regular flights to 31 different countries in Europe, Asia, and America.

For more than 30 years, Interflug became the most successful airline not only in Berlin but in the entirety of East Germany. As it had not joined the International Air Transport Association (IATA) until 1 July 1990, IF had complete control of the price fares and management of the company, and it had driven PanAm out of business in the German market by the early 1980s.

The first AirBerlin livery introduced on ex-TWA Boeing 707 kept the colors and the name of its founder country: the United States of America. Photo: Ralf Manteufel (GFDL 1.2 or GFDL 1.2), via Wikimedia Commons

The United Ststes Strikes Back: AirBerlin

One of the major crises that affected civil aviation was the World Oil Crisis of 1973, which also had a profound impact on Berlin’s aviation industry at the time. Interflug, despite offering rock-bottom fares and serving a network of 36 routes worldwide, was also facing financial trouble and needed to discard the entirety of its domestic route network, operating its last national flight to Erfurt in April 1980.

Moreover, the age, noise, and fuel efficiency of their aircraft were falling behind Western standards, and many countries started to ban IF flights over their territory due to safety and environmental reasons. Thanks to the Perestroika movement in Eastern Europe, which started to grant permission for the export of Western products to Wrsaw Pact countries, Interflug ordered three A310 aircraft from Airbus, which was the first and only non-soviet airplane to ever join the fleet.

Meanwhile, PanAmerican Airways was finding itself in a tough situation, as operating a separate hub almost 5000 miles away from America and facing severe issues from its competitor Interflug was hard-hitting on the company’s financial numbers. That is why, in 1978, the United States founded a new airline named “AirBerlin” (AB), which would serve as the home airline of the city, starting operations one year later on 28 April 1979.

AirBerlin was also started as a charter company offering flights for tour operators to Mediterranean destinations. This was the market of the best performance of Interflug, which at the moment took over almost most share of flights from Berlin to Southern Europe. Moreover, AirBerlin was registered in the United States and not Germany, at first, in order to be allowed to operate from Tegel Airport and use the Allied Air Corridors.

The first airplanes to join the AB fleet were two Boeing 707-300 airplanes previously owned by TWA and the airline saw great success on leisure routes like Tegel to Palma de Mallorca (PMI). Later on, AB signed a partnership with Air Florida (QH) to expand transatlantic on Berlin-Brussels-Orlando flights, and in 1980, the new German carrier leased their first two Boeing 737 airplanes from QH.

With 386 airplanes in total, AirBerlin painted in red the leisure market in Europe for almost 40 years before going bankrupt in 2017. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

AirBerlin’s Growth in the Early XXI Century

The German reunification in 1990 saw three major events which changed the path of Berlin forever. First of all, the city was reunited with one large metropolis. Secondly, the fall of the Soviet Union one year later ended with the life of Interflug, East Berlin’s home airline. And finally, AB was finally allowed to freely operate from all of Germany and was converted into a fully-owned German airline.

The latest event meant that the company was under national control and could be managed and restructured according to national opinions and strategies, which led to an enormous expansion and merger with other companies. At the end of 2007, after the acquirement of important entities such as DBA or LTU, AirBerlin proclaimed itself as the second-largest airline in Germany.

Now, the main focus of AB had drifted away from charter operations a long time ago. The carrier had established itself as a semi-low-cost carrier, different from pure LCCs by offering complimentary seat reservations and meals on board their flights.

As well, AB opened new bases in Nuremberg (NUE), Düsseldorf (DUS), and Hamburg (HAM), and included for the first time premium destinations like Vienna (VIE), London (LGW), and Milan (MXP). Despite this, the leisure market remained the primary source of profit for AirBerlin for years

At its greatest extent, AirBerlin had a mixed fleet of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family jets destined for short-haul travel. Meanwhile, for high-demand flights to the Balearics and long-haul journeys to America, the company chose the Airbus A330 family as the backbone widebody jet. In July 2007, AB signed the order for 25 units of the brand new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner to keep expanding long-range.

During the last 5 years of operations, AirBerlin joined OneWorld Alliance to seek cooperation with other airlines and ensure their financial stability. Photo: Darryl Sarno/Airways

The Last Years of AirBerlin Operations

The Financial Crisis of 2008 struck heavily the airlines of the world, and AB could not escape from the expansive wave of the sudden drop in passenger demand for air travel. Additionally, the leisure travel-based network of AB complicated the situation at the airline even more, as the average population stopped investing in flights for holidays from 2008 onwards.

For the next three years, AB started operating at a loss which worsened every period up to 106.3€ million in 2011. During that year, the takeover of the air carrier “Niki” was finalized and a new subsidiary called “AirBerlin Turkey” was launched which was absorbed later on by national LCC Pegasus Airlines (PC) in 2013. Despite this, trust was kept on the main strategy of AB, which received additional capital for survival, and Etihad Airways (EY) became the company’s largest stakeholder with a 29% share of the entity.

In 2012, AB achieved its latest promising results, with a shy €6.8m profit, but from now then, the German airline fell into an unrecoverable fall towards bankruptcy. The great influence of Etihad Airways (EY) in the management of the entity commenced a new restructuring plan. Among the main actions, AB started the closure of the smallest hubs, canceled the order for Boeing 787 airplanes, and started the retirement of all its Boeing jets to remain with a full-Airbus fleet.

None of the methods implemented by EY to ensure the stability of AB were successful. Also, the entire cooperation with the Abu Dhabi-based airline was not seen well by the German tribunals, which on many occasions restricted or prohibited the opening of routes or acquisition of new aircraft for the airline. In 2016, the final annual report published by AB declared an enormous loss of €781.9m.

In August 2017, EY lost any remaining hope in saving the airline from bankruptcy, and AB massively started canceling routes during the summer season, leaving passengers stranded on multiple destinations in the Mediterranean and America.

The last AB flight from Munich, with callsign “AirBerlin 4 Ever,” landed at Berlin-Tegel airport on the evening of October 27, 2017, after making a low flyby over Tempelhof, thus ending the story of Berlin’s most famous airline.

The new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport was built by reusing parts of the former Schönefeld airport. Photo: Günter Wicker/Flughafen Berlin

The Airport Reunification of Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Reunification of Germany in the 1990s, the German capital saw itself in an interesting situation, as from one day to another it had operating three different airports receiving flights from the same destinations simultaneously: Berlin-Tegel, Berlin-Tempelhof and Berlin-Schönefeld. This, of course, made traveling to the city by air a very odd and inefficient form of transport.

That is why, on 2 May 1991, the government founded the Berlin Brandenburg Flughafen Holding GmbH (BBF), which is the enterprise in charge of designing and constructing a brand new intercontinental-sized airport that would act as the only gateway to Berlin and a major hub for connecting traffic in Germany, competing with the giants Frankfurt-Main (FRA) and Munich-Strauss (MUC) airports.

The area chosen for the site of construction was adjacent to the former Schönefeld Airport (SXF), which gave the possibility to take advantage of the 11 thousand-foot runway already built to include it in the new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER) scheme. Apart from the airfield itself, the whole process also included the definitive closure of both TXL and SXF and the construction of a new S-Bahn and train station, and the A113 highway.

Despite being expected to be inaugurated on 30 October 2011, five years after the start of the construction in 2006, the immense amount of delays related to planning, execution, and management of corruption, including the bankruptcy of BBF on the way, caused enormous delays that postponed the opening 10 total times until 31 October 2020, 29 years after the announcement of Berlin’s airport unification.

This €6.5bn airport was designed with the goal of converting Berlin into one of the largest connection hubs in Europe, led by the hometown airline AB, which during most of the project was experiencing its climax as an airline and offered flights passing through Berlin to more than 35 countries in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. However, as the red carrier ceased operations in October 2017, Berlin-Brandenburg was left with no based airline at all.

Just as 80 years earlier, the most dominant airlines operating at Berlin-Brandenburg Airport are registered in foreign countries. Photo: Günter Wicker/Flughafen Berlin

Berlin’s Airport Situation Today

Berlin-Brandenburg Airport officially opened and started receiving commercial flights on October 31, 2020. Today, it receives around 54.000 passengers every day, which seems like a big number, but it actually places Berlin as the 25th busiest airport in Europe, and not even within the 50 busiest in the world. Its performance by traffic is comparable to Malaga (AGP) or Chicago-Midway (MDW).

Additionally, BER is a current partial base for only four airlines: Ryanair (FR), EasyJet (U2), EW, and Sundair (SR). Of those, only two are German and none of them is considered a premium traditional airline. All of them operate low-cost or charter flights to leisure destinations.

While the most developed route network of Berlin is heavily focused on intra-European Schengen area flights, the largest disappointment comes when looking at the statistics of intercontinental traffic and flights outside the European Union. The airport was designed with a second floor with gates entirely dedicated to non-Schengen flights, yet less than one-third of the total flights arrive or depart from that concourse.

Looking at long-haul, however, we find that the only airlines that offer flights in this section of the market are United Airlines (UA), Delta Air Lines (DL), Qatar Airways (QR), Scoot (TR), and Norse Atlantic (N0), which has already removed Berlin from its schedule for Winter 2023.

There has also been designed and built an Airbus A380-sized gate, potentially expected to be filled by Emirates (EK) flights, but the world’s most connected airline has decided not to even include Berlin-Brandenburg on its worldwide destination list.

Norse Atlantic Airways has been the latest airline to try and fail to establish a profitable hub in Berlin for its long-haul low-cost operations. Photo: Anikka Bauer/Flughafen Berlin

Berlin’s Missing Airline

In August 2022, Norse Atlantic Airways announced the opening of a partial hub at BER for their new long-haul low-cost flights to the United States, such as New York (JFK), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), and Los Angeles (LAX). However, after less than one year of operations at BER, the airline has already removed all of its flights from the city for the winter season.

After a five-year hiatus without any long-haul carrier based in Berlin, one year has been enough time for Norse to decide flying out of BER is a financial failure. But, despite having a population of 3.6 million and being the capital of one of the most influential cities worldwide, Why has Berlin had so much bad luck in securing a stable airline as the main carrier of the city?

First of all, the turbulent history of Berlin as an aviation market has constantly complicated the promotion of the city as a trustworthy hub. During the cold war, Berlin was divided into two politically opposite regions and their governments imposed strict restrictions on the establishment of new airlines.

On the other hand, after the German reunification, the constant delays in the opening of BER, added to the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, may have scared away any potential investor due to the instability of the market not only in Berlin but also at a worldwide level. As well, until 2017, AB was meant to be a home carrier of the city, meaning that it could easily drive out of business any startup beginning operations at BER as well.

Lufthansa may have been the best contestant for a Berlin-based carrier, but as LH has been blocked from operating out of Berlin since the start of the cold war, it has already found two large aviation hubs that work perfectly: FRA and MUC. The airline only operates a handful of daily feeder flights that connect BER with their hubs, and thus the rest of their route network.

Given the enormous leisure demand for air travel to Asia, the airline offering flights from Singapore to Berlin is not Singapore Airlines (SQ), but its subsidiary Scoot. Photo: Flughafen Berlin

A Low-Cost Dominated Airport

Finally, and as we have seen earlier, air travel in Berlin has been heavily dominated by the leisure market. And, while the small remaining business demand has been covered by the home carriers of the different destinations flying to BER, for many decades holiday flights have been absorbed mostly by low-cost airlines that operate from scattered small hubs across Europe, like Ryanair or EasyJet.

Berlin-Brandenburg Airport was designed to compete with the largest commercial aviation hubs in Europe. It was a US$6.5bn project that was meant to attract both premium and low-cost airlines and enlarge the overall prosperity of the German capital city.

However, as it has turned out, Berlin will remain in the archives of civil aviation as a capital city without wings; a place where everyone wants to fly into, but no one wants to fly out of.

Featured image: EasyJet is one of the largest airlines that currently operate flights out of Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. Photo: Günter Wicker/Flughafen Berlin

Deputy Reporter - Europe & Middle East
Commercial aviation enthusiast from Madrid, Spain. Studying for a degree in Air Traffic Management and Operations at the Technical University of Madrid. Aviation photographer since 2018.

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