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Berlin residents voted to keep open the city’s Tegel Airport in a backlash over the fiasco surrounding Willy Brandt International, which is meant to replace the Cold War relic.
The measure won 56.1 percent of the votes cast in Sunday’s election, surpassing the required majority, according to the city’s website. While the result sends a signal to Berlin’s Senate to revoke the decision to close Tegel after the new hub begins operating, it isn’t binding.
The vote could be a blow to Deutsche Lufthansa AG, which is set to become the dominant force in Berlin’s aviation market after being selected to hold talks to take over much of insolvent Air Berlin Plc. The closure of Tegel would tighten air-travel capacity in the German capital, making Lufthansa’s position more valuable.
Rival Ryanair Holdings Plc had placed billboards around the city to campaign to keep Tegel open with the aim of gaining slots at the airport, which is more central than the new hub. The Irish carrier currently serves Berlin through the former communist facility of Schoenefeld, which will eventually close for commercial traffic.
“Berlin cannot afford to fall behind rival cities competing for tourists and holiday makers,” Ryanair Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs said in an emailed statement. “We urge the new German government, once formed, to put the retention of Tegel at the top of their agenda.”
Lufthansa didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the Berlin vote.
With the so-called BER airport more than six years late and the price tag doubling to some $6 billion, voters sided with Sebastian Czaja, a local politician with the Free Democrat party, who forced the referendum with a petition drive that collected 250,000 signatures. Berlin’s Social Democrat mayor Michael Mueller is in favor of closing Tegel to create a technology park and provide space for new apartments on the site.
The successful referendum marks an important win for the FDP, which is seeking to return to the national stage after losing voters in the last federal election. The airport was a key issue in the party’s campaign in Berlin, with billboards across the city declaring its candidates “Tegel-savers.” In Sunday’s nationwide parliamentary ballot, the party collected 10.7 percent of the votes and could play a role in the government coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Proponents of the aging airport pointed to the fact that BER’s capacity is currently less than the current traffic served by Tegel and Schoenefeld, which could mean fewer visitors to Berlin and higher fares if the German capital is served only by the new airport. Tegel opponents wanted it closed to stem noise and pollution as well as justify the investment in BER.
Construction at the new airport started in 2006. The facility was set to open in 2011, but has been delayed multiple times over safety issues and mismanagement. The airport won’t open before 2019 as myriad problems remain.
Tegel was originally built to handle 2.7 million passengers a year when Berlin was an island in a sea of communism. It’s now overflowing as tourists and business travelers flock to the capital, handling more than 21 million last year.
–With assistance from Benjamin Katz and Thomas Seal