Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Back to Blighty

When I flew back from Provence a month ago I flew into London on a gloriously clear night. I was flying in to Stansted airport north of London and the plane flew over the English Channel, right over the centre of London and then to the airport at Stansted in Essex. The lights of London were a beautiful sight, and many features (including of course the Thames) were very readily visible.

Yesterday, when flying back from Berlin, the night was ever clearer, if anything. There was no cloud anywhere from Berlin to London. As we came in from the East over the North Sea, we didn't get the same view of London. However, we got a great view of the mouth of the Rhine and the port and city of Rotterdam. (The captain was nice enough to point this out to passengers, too). And it turned out that we did get a view of London.

When we arrived in Essex, we were put into a holding pattern for about ten minutes and we did a big circle. The area around the airport is not very densely populated (there really isn't very much between London and Cambridge, although this is actually going to change. (The British government has three zones for the expansion of the London Metropolitan area: one is the "Thames Gateway", consising mostly of brownfield sites in northern Kent, another is the area up the M1 motorway and the West Coast mainline northwest between London and Milton Keynes, and the third is the "Stansted Zone" up the M11 motorway and the West Anglia railway between London and Cambridge).

However, at the moment the area around Stansted airport consists of the odd village, but not much else. However, the plane circled south towards London. The southernmost point of the arc was about the top of the M25 orbital motorway. We could see the immense pattern of lights of the great city stretching far to the south, just extended to the region directly below us. Then we flew north again, over the green belt and then past a number of disconnected satellite commuter towns: part of London economically but not physically connected to it for planning reasons (the abovementioned green belt). Then it was back to occasional little villages, the bright lights of the airport, and landing. (When I first started using Stansted airport in 1992, it had been built as a major airport but received very little traffic. It is now extremely busy. Passenger movements have increased from three million a year to twenty million (this is about the same as Sydney airport) - a major airport in a major city, although only the third busiest in London. The contrast with Berlin is quite striking actually. Berlin has three airports (Tegel and Tempelhof in the former West, and Schonefeld, which was the airport I flew from, in the former East), but all of them are basically spruced up World War 2 landing strips. Although Berlin is the fifth largest metropolitan area in Western Europe (London, Paris, the Ruhr, and Madrid, to answer the obvious question) and both the capital of the third largest economy in the world and an obvious place for an air hub for getting to and from Eastern Europe, at present it essentially just receives connecting flights. Lufthansa was not permitted to fly to Berlin at all until 1990 (domestic flights within Germany to and from Berlin were actually flown by Pan-Am) and it does not operate a hub there. You cannot even fly directly from the UK to Berlin on Lufthansa, although there are flights on various other airlines. And the airports are small scale and outdated and provincial looking.

Still, however, they are much better than what is further east. There are at least cheap flights out of Berlin, as I was taking advantage of. On the flight to London there were lots of people talking in slavic languages (presumably mostly Polish) and lots of people carrying Polish passports. It is much easier and presumably much cheaper to fly to London from Berlin than it is from anywhere in eastern Poland (and I suspect from anywhere else in Poland, although at some point the distance from Berlin becomes an issue).

The German authorities have been busy rebuilding all manner of other facilities in Berlin and recent years, and a new airport is one of the next things on the agenda. An all new, large and completely modern and up to date "Berlin Brandenburg International Airport" is to be built essentially over the top of the existing Schonefeld airport. This will be a two parallel runway affair capable of handling 50 million passengers or so a year. At that point, one expects that Lufthansa will make Berlin a hub and lots of other airlines will add lots of traffic to the city as well.

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