hidden europe 19

Schönefeld airport: a retrospect

by Nicky Gardner


Just imagine! A time when plane tickets had no hidden extras and could be endlessly changed without penalty. We cast our eyes back to East Germany in 1973, and recall the days when Iraqi Airways flew from Berlin to London.

Living in Berlin, it is not at all unusual that the enquiries of visitors eventually turn to the German Democratic Republic - the former East German communist state that was unceremoniously gobbled up by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990. The great majority of budget airlines flying into the German capital land at Schönefeld, which was once the premier airport in East Germany. Many visitors jetting into Berlin nowadays shuffle through Schönefeld airport often unaware of its history.

Schönefeld is desperately trying to shake off its old image and recast itself as chic, modern and growing. Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) is the name that the marketing folk have dreamt up, but it will surely be a generation or two before Berliners - from either side of the former Wall - stop calling it Schönefeld.

Rows of modern jets now line the airport apron, with EasyJet's orange and white Airbuses fair and square the winners in terms of numbers, and it is hard to remember what the airport schedules were like in East German times. Nowadays, folk gather in the overcrowded departure lounges waiting to board flights for Barcelona, Mallorca and London Luton, where once the party faithful quietly queued for Moscow, Minsk or Havana.

But what was Schönefeld airport like thirtyfive years ago? Take a look at the schedules for April 1973 for some interesting insights into East Germany. Moscow was the place that featured most prominently on the departure boards - six flights a day. The list of other regular connections is quite predictable: Prague, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia, Leningrad and Minsk. But Schönefeld also had a fair smattering of flights to ideologically questionable destinations in western Europe. There were for example two weekly flights to London Heathrow, both interesting in their own way. The Polish airline, LOT, touched down in East Berlin on Thursday afternoons, with a flight that originated in Warsaw and continued on to Amsterdam and London. Multi-sector flights between European cities were much more common in 1973 than ever they are today. But the other weekly option from Schönefeld to London was much the more exotic of the two: an Iraqi Airways flight that stopped off on Saturdays en route from Baghdad to London.