A City Without Wings: Berlin's Missing Airline History

Take a deep dive into the history of Berlin's airports and why the German capital still lacks a stable local airline.



October 27, 2023

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 LH 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: Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER). Despite being in third place, the airport has only transported over 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 €6.5 billion 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 20th century, Berlin followed the pattern of other major European capitals by constructing its first large airport. This involved selecting a spacious airfield located three miles away from the city center to accommodate small piston-engine-driven airplanes. The Berlin-Tempelhof Airport (THF) was officially opened on October 8, 1923, and quickly gained prominence in Europe during the 1920s, alongside airports such as Paris-Le Bourget (LBG) and Croydon Airport in the UK.

The primary purpose of THF was to handle flights operated by Deutsche Luft Hansa, the precursor to today's Lufthansa, which had a limited European network including destinations like Zurich, Halle, Erfurt, and Stuttgart. During World War II, all civilian operations at THF were suspended until 1945, and instead of converting the airport into a military base, Germany decided to relocate Luftwaffe flights to an airfield in Rangsdorf, south of Berlin.

Following the end of the war and the division of Berlin among the Allies, Berlin-Tempelhof remained under the control of the United States. It served as a vital strategic airfield for West Berlin, particularly during the "Berlin Airlift" in 1948. Douglas C-47s and C-54s landed daily at Tempelhof to deliver essential supplies to the population in response to the Soviet Union's closure of borders.

Meanwhile, the Soviets required their own airport on the eastern side of the city. In 1945, the Soviet Union occupied the Schönefeld aircraft plant, which was previously used by Henschel for military aircraft production. Two years later, construction began on Berlin's second civilian airport, Schönefeld, independent of the development at Tempelhof.

For the next four decades, until German reunification, Berlin witnessed the simultaneous growth of two major airports: Berlin-Tempelhof (THF) and Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF). However, while the Soviet Union established its own airline, Interflug (IF), at Schönefeld Airport, West Germany, under the United States administration, it did not choose to reinstate Lufthansa operations in Berlin. Instead, Tempelhof was designated 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 August 1948, to support the Berlin Airlift and address the growing demand for supplies that exceeded Tempelhof's capacity, the US government began the construction of a new airfield north of Berlin. This airport, named Berlin-Tegel Airport, boasted the world's longest runway at the time, spanning 8,000 feet. It officially commenced operations on November 5, 1948.

During the Cold War, as air travel technology advanced and became more accessible, Berlin-Tempelhof gradually became inadequate for accommodating larger jet aircraft such as the Boeing 707, De Havilland Comet, and Caravelle. Expansion was no longer feasible due to the city's encroachment on the airport from all sides, driven by population growth.

Consequently, on January 2, 1960, Air France made history by landing a Lockheed Superconstellation on the first commercial flight from Paris-Orly to Berlin-Tegel Airport. This marked the beginning of the transition for all airlines serving Berlin, as they shifted their operations from Tempelhof to Tegel. Air France, PanAm, and British European Airways (BE) quickly followed suit, capitalizing on the modern terminal facilities and long runways to introduce jet aircraft on their routes to and from Berlin.

The opening of Tegel Airport for commercial airline service did not prompt the city government to establish a national carrier. As West Berlin was under the control of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, air travel demand to the city from the West was exclusively catered to by US, French, and British airlines such as PanAm, Air France, and BEA.

Interestingly, Lufthansa, headquartered in Cologne, West Germany, was not initially granted permission to operate flights to Tegel. It was only after the German reunification in 1990 that Lufthansa was included among the airlines authorized to fly into Tegel. By that time, Lufthansa had already experienced significant growth in Frankfurt due to the city's industrial development, resulting in increased population and demand for air travel.

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

Berlin's Soviet Airline: Interflug

Following the end of World War II and the division of Berlin, which already had two commercial airports on the western side, the Soviet Union shifted its focus to developing its own airfield south of the city: Berlin-Schönefeld (SXF). In parallel, the East German government aimed to establish a unified Soviet aviation market in East Germany and founded the successful Berlin-based airline Interflug (IF).

Interflug was initially established as a charter air carrier on September 18, 1958, serving as a backup option for East Berlin. Its staff, route network, and part of the fleet were transferred from the defunct Deutsche Lufthansa. In the 1960s, Interflug experienced significant growth and transitioned into a regular-service airline.

During its early years, Interflug focused on operating regular passenger flights to major cities, primarily in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. Destinations included Moscow (SVO), Belgrade (BEG), Prague (PRG), and Bucharest (BBU). It also served a limited domestic network within Germany, including cities like Leipzig (LEJ) and Dresden (DRS).

Similar to other Soviet airlines, the IF fleet was limited to Ilyushin, Let, Aero, Tupolev, and Antonov aircraft. Throughout its existence until 1989, Interflug relied on the Il-18 and Tu-134 for short-haul flights and the IL-62 for long-haul flights, forming the backbone of its fleet. At its peak, Interflug had approximately 50 aircraft and operated regular flights to 31 different countries in Europe, Asia, and America.

For over 30 years, Interflug emerged as the most successful airline not only in Berlin but in all of East Germany. As it did not join the International Air Transport Association (IATA) until July 1, 1990, Interflug had full control over pricing and company management. Its dominance in the German market led to the withdrawal of PanAm in the early 1980s.

The first AirBerlin livery introduced on the 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 States Strikes Back: AirBerlin

One of the significant crises that impacted the civil aviation industry was the World Oil Crisis of 1973, which also had a profound effect on Berlin's aviation sector. Interflug, despite offering low fares and operating a network of 36 routes worldwide, faced financial difficulties and had to discontinue its entire domestic route network. Its last national flight was to Erfurt in April 1980.

Furthermore, Interflug's aging aircraft, noise levels, and fuel efficiency fell behind Western standards. Many countries began banning Interflug flights due to safety and environmental concerns. With the advent of the Perestroika movement in Eastern Europe, which allowed for the export of Western products to Warsaw Pact countries, Interflug ordered three A310 aircraft from Airbus. These were the first non-Soviet planes to join the Interflug fleet.

Meanwhile, PanAmerican Airways found itself in a challenging situation. Operating a separate hub nearly 5,000 miles away from the United States and facing fierce competition from Interflug strained the company's finances. As a result, the United States established a new airline called "AirBerlin" (AB) in 1978. AirBerlin would serve as the city's home carrier and commence operations on April 28, 1979.

Initially, AirBerlin operated as a charter company, providing flights for tour operators to Mediterranean destinations. This market segment overlapped with Interflug's strong performance, as Interflug dominated flights from Berlin to Southern Europe. AirBerlin was initially registered in the United States rather than Germany, allowing it to operate from Tegel Airport and utilize the Allied Air Corridors.

The first aircraft to join the AirBerlin fleet were two ex-TWA Boeing 707-300 planes. The airline achieved success on leisure routes, such as Tegel to Palma de Mallorca. Later, AirBerlin entered into a partnership with Air Florida to expand transatlantic flights on the Berlin-Brussels-Orlando route. In 1980, the new German carrier leased its first two Boeing 737 aircraft from Air Florida.

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

AirBerlin's Growth in the XXI Century

The German reunification in 1990 marked a significant turning point for Berlin, bringing about three major events that would shape the city's future. Firstly, the reunification united the city into one large metropolis. Secondly, with the fall of the Soviet Union a year later, Interflug, the airline based in East Berlin, ceased operations. Finally, AirBerlin (AB) was granted the freedom to operate throughout Germany and transformed into a fully-owned German airline.

This change meant that AirBerlin came under national control and could be managed and restructured according to German opinions and strategies. This led to substantial expansion and mergers with other companies. By the end of 2007, after acquiring entities like DBA and LTU, AirBerlin had declared itself the second-largest airline in Germany.

AirBerlin had shifted its focus away from charter operations and established itself as a low-cost carrier. It differentiated itself from pure low-cost carriers by offering complimentary seat reservations and meals on board its flights.

Additionally, AirBerlin opened new bases in Nuremberg (NUE), Düsseldorf (DUS), and Hamburg (HAM) and expanded its network to include premium destinations such as Vienna (VIE), London (LGW), and Milan (MXP). Despite these developments, the leisure market remained the primary source of profit for AirBerlin for many years.

At its peak, AirBerlin operated a mixed fleet of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family jets for short-haul travel. For high-demand flights to the Balearic Islands and long-haul journeys to America, the airline relied on the Airbus A330 family as its main widebody jet. In July 2007, AirBerlin placed an order for 25 brand new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft to further expand its long-range capabilities.

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 global financial crisis of 2008 had a severe impact on airlines worldwide, including AB, which was unable to escape the drastic decline in passenger demand for air travel. Complicating matters further, AB's focus on leisure travel exacerbated the situation as people stopped investing in flights for holidays from 2008 onward.

Over the next three years, AB consistently operated at a loss, with the losses worsening each period, reaching €106.3 million in 2011. During that year, AB completed the acquisition of the air carrier "Niki" and launched a new subsidiary called "AirBerlin Turkey," which was later absorbed by the national low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines (PC) in 2013. Despite these developments, AB's main strategy remained intact, as the airline received additional capital for survival and Etihad Airways (EY) became the company's largest stakeholder, holding a 29% share.

In 2012, AB achieved its most recent promising results, with a modest profit of €6.8 million. However, from that point onwards, the German airline began a downward spiral towards insolvency, largely influenced by the management decisions of Etihad Airways (EY). A new restructuring plan was implemented, which involved closing smaller hubs, canceling orders for Boeing 787 aircraft, and phasing out all Boeing jets to maintain a fully Airbus fleet.

Unfortunately, none of the measures implemented by EY to ensure AB's stability proved successful. Moreover, the collaboration with the Abu Dhabi-based airline faced obstacles from German tribunals, which frequently limited or prohibited the opening of routes or the acquisition of new aircraft for AB. In 2016, AB's final annual report revealed a staggering loss of €781.9 million.

By August 2017, EY had lost all hope of rescuing AB from bankruptcy, leading to mass route cancellations during the summer season and leaving passengers stranded in various Mediterranean and American destinations.

On the evening of October 27, 2017, the last AB flight from Munich, identified as "AirBerlin 4 Ever," made a low flyby over Tempelhof before landing at Berlin-Tegel airport, signifying the end of an era for Berlin's most renowned airline.

The new Berlin-Brandenburg Airport was built by reusing parts from Schönefeld Airport. Photo: Günter Wicker/Flughafen Berlin

The Airport Reunification of Berlin

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in the 1990s, Berlin found itself in a unique situation. Overnight, the city had three different airports—Berlin-Tegel, Berlin-Tempelhof, and Berlin-Schönefeld—all receiving flights from the same destinations simultaneously. This resulted in a confusing and inefficient air travel experience for passengers.

To address this issue, the Berlin Brandenburg Flughafen Holding GmbH (BBF) was established by the government on May 2, 1991. Its primary objective was to design and construct a new, large-scale airport that would serve as the sole gateway to Berlin and a major hub for connecting flights in Germany, competing with Frankfurt-Main (FRA) and Munich-Strauss (MUC) airports.

The chosen location for the new airport was adjacent to the existing Schönefeld Airport (SXF), allowing for the utilization of the already-built 11 thousand-foot runway in the development of the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport (BER). The project involved not only the construction of the airport itself but also the permanent closure of both TXL and SXF, the establishment of a new S-Bahn and train station, and the construction of the A113 highway.

Despite an initial target inauguration date of October 30, 2011—five years after construction began in 2006—numerous delays, ranging from planning and execution issues to corruption scandals and the bankruptcy of BBF, plagued the project. As a result, the opening date was postponed a total of 10 times, eventually taking place on October 31, 2020—29 years after the announcement of Berlin's airport unification.

With a budget of €6.5 billion, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport was designed to transform Berlin into one of the largest connecting hubs in Europe. The hometown airline, AB, played a significant role in the project, offering flights through Berlin to over 35 countries in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. However, following the cessation of AB's operations in October 2017, Berlin-Brandenburg was left without a carrier to call its own.

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 commenced operations and began welcoming commercial flights on October 31, 2020. Presently, it handles approximately 54,000 passengers daily, which may seem like a substantial number. However, it positions Berlin as the 25th busiest airport in Europe and does not even place it within the top 50 busiest airports globally. In terms of traffic, it is comparable to airports such as Malaga (AGP) or Chicago-Midway (MDW).

Furthermore, BER currently serves as a partial base for only four airlines: Ryanair (FR), EasyJet (U2), EW, and Sundair (SR). Out of these, only two are German carriers, and none are considered premium traditional airlines. All of them primarily operate low-cost or charter flights to leisure destinations.

Although Berlin's route network is well developed for intra-European Schengen area flights, the biggest disappointment lies in the statistics for intercontinental traffic and flights outside the European Union. The airport was designed with a second-floor concourse dedicated to non-Schengen flights, but less than one-third of the total flights arrive or depart from that area.

Regarding long-haul flights, only a few airlines serve this segment of the market, including United Airlines (UA), Delta Air Lines (DL), Qatar Airways (QR), Scoot (TR), and Norse Atlantic (N0), although the latter has removed Berlin from its Winter 2023 schedule.

Additionally, a gate large enough to accommodate an Airbus A380 was designed and constructed with the expectation that it would be utilized by Emirates (EK) flights. However, the world's most connected airline has decided not to include Berlin-Brandenburg in its list of worldwide destinations.

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

Norse Atlantic Airways made an announcement in August 2022 about establishing a partial hub at BER to facilitate their new long-haul low-cost flights to the United States, including destinations like New York (JFK), Fort Lauderdale (FLL), and Los Angeles (LAX). However, after less than a year of operations at BER, the airline has already decided to remove all its flights from the city for the winter season.

Although Berlin, with its population of 3.6 million and its status as the capital of an influential city, seems like an ideal location for a stable main carrier, the city has faced significant challenges in this regard. One reason is the turbulent history of Berlin as an aviation market, which has consistently complicated efforts to establish the city as a reliable hub. During the Cold War, Berlin was divided into politically opposing regions, each imposing strict restrictions on the establishment of new airlines.

Furthermore, the constant delays in the opening of BER, coupled with the global COVID-19 crisis in 2020, may have deterred potential investors due to market instability, not only in Berlin but also worldwide. Additionally, until 2017, AB was considered the flagship carrier of the city, making it difficult for any startup attempting to operate at BER to compete.

Lufthansa may have been the most viable contender for a Berlin-based carrier. However, since the start of the Cold War, LH has been prohibited from operating out of Berlin. As a result, the airline has successfully established two major aviation hubs, FRA and MUC, which serve as their primary operational bases. Lufthansa now operates only a few daily feeder flights connecting BER to their hubs and 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

Rephrased: As mentioned earlier, the air travel market in Berlin has predominantly revolved around leisure travel. While the limited remaining business demand has been served by the respective home carriers of different destinations flying to BER, holiday flights have primarily been operated by low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet, which operate from various small hubs across Europe.

Berlin-Brandenburg Airport was designed with the ambition of competing with the largest commercial aviation hubs in Europe. With a project cost of US$6.5 billion, it aimed to attract both premium and low-cost airlines, ultimately boosting the overall prosperity of the German capital.

However, it has become evident that Berlin will be remembered in the annals of civil aviation as a capital city without significant outbound air traffic. It remains a destination that everyone wants to fly into, yet it struggles to attract airlines for outbound flights.

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