Hamburg, thought to be the oldest airport that is still at its original location, is celebrating its 100th birthday. Tom Allett and Katja Tempel look back over its century of history.
Over the past 100 years there have been many milestones in the history of Hamburg Airport as well as that of German aviation. Before we delve deep into the archives, perhaps we should start with some belated congratulations to the long-departed visionaries who chose the airport’s location. Though, back in 1911, they couldn’t possibly have imagined just how much air travel would develop, they obviously chose their spot well. For a major city airport to have expanded its business from virtually an open field through to today’s complex and efficient operation and be able to on the same site, is truly remarkable.
Although the world’s first hot air balloon passengers are recorded as flying in the 18th Century, the first officially recognised flights by a powered aircraft – the Wright Flyer – took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA on December 17, 1903. So, just over seven years after the first conventional aircraft had taken to the air on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the seeds of Hamburg’s future success had already been sown. Today it is northern Germany’s largest international airport.
In March 1910 the German airship pioneer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin addressed an enthusiastic group of influential Hamburg residents; telling them of his designs’ potential. Some of those gathered, such as the merchant Edmund Siemers and the shipping magnate Albert Ballin wanted Hamburg to exploit the travel and business possibilities presented by the new airships. They needed a facility that could accommodate these aerial giants and acquired a 44.8 hectare property in the village of Fuhlsbüttel, then on the outskirts of Hamburg. By comparison, today’s airport site covers 570 hectares, but this includes all of the original area. The meeting that formed what was then known as the Hamburger Luftschiffhallen GmbH (Hamburg Airship Hangars Company or HLG) took place on January 10, 1911, and the field and airship hangar’s opening ceremony, which took the form of a fair, followed in the spring of 1912. Today, the location of that original airship hangar is home to two state-of-the-art terminal buildings and the airport’s Central Plaza, handling approximately 35,500 passengers a day pass.
The first conventional aircraft arrived at Hamburg soon after the airships. In these early days the very few aircraft were all civilian-owned machines. However, the outbreak of World War One (1914-18) meant that all commercial flying – and the growth that it brought – came to a halt while the airfield was requisitioned for military use. After the war ended the hangar and other airfield facilities were either destroyed or confiscated under the terms of the Armistice.
However, during the conflict, the needs of the military authorities had pushed aircraft development forward far quicker than would have been possible during peacetime. Despite the fact that the airfield’s facilities had effectively been removed this accelerated development helped to kick-start commercial air services from the site. Just three months after the armistice had been signed Deutsche Luftreederei GmbH (DLR) carried passengers from Hamburg to Berlin. The island of Sylt, off the West German coast was added next, then Copenhagen via Hamburg to Amsterdam became the first international route. As flying became a more organised affair, effective communications and equipment became increasingly important. In 1923 Hamburg became the first airport in Germany to have its own radio station and by 1926 its technicians were able to locate approaching aircraft by using radio bearings. At this stage runways were still grass. Take-offs were simply made into whatever direction the wind was coming from and the length of the grass was maintained by the airport’s own herd of sheep! But, considering that air travel was only within reach of the rich and famous, it was a time of spectacular growth. In 1923 5,087 passengers travelled through Hamburg, but in 1924 that figure rocketed to 17,350. In percentage terms that is the largest growth rate in the airport’s history.
The first terminal building
In 1928, 112 architectural companies competed for the contract to design Hamburg Airport’s first terminal building. The winning studio was Dyrssen & Averhoff. Its gently sweeping building opened in 1929. It accommodated all passenger and cargo handling, while providing space for administration offices, a restaurant and an observation deck. It was the heart of the airport for almost 70 years and until 1984, air traffic control was located in the tower structure on its roof.
With airships largely replaced by conventional aircraft, in 1932, the company changed its name from Hamburger Luftschiffhallen-Gesellschaft to Hamburger Flughafen-Verwaltung GmbH (Hamburg Airport Administration).
These were still early days – the airport was still
using its own sheep to cut the grass – and yet passenger numbers and services continued upwards.
In 1935 the airport made its biggest physicalexpansion to date when it bought land that enabled it to stretch across 220 hectares. Airfield lighting was also added, enabling night flights to be introduced.
Although air travel wouldn’t really come within everyone’s reach for about another four decades, it is worth noting that the airport was connected to the public transport system as early as the mid-1930s, even if it was probably used more by staff than passengers.
As airliners grew in size and reliability, passenger number rose slowly but surely. In 1937 the airport handled 57,194 travellers, but then World War Two (1939-45) stopped all commercial flights for approximately seven years. The airfield became a Luftwaffe base shortly before war broke out but, remarkably, its terminal building survived undamaged and this is put down to the extensive efforts made to camouflage it. When the war ended, the British Royal Air Force took control of the fully-functional facility and named it Hamburg Airport.
Airlift base station
As post-war Europe struggled to rebuild, civil aviation in Germany slowly resumed under the guidance of the British occupying forces. British European Airways launched passenger services in 1946 and the following year it was joined by Sabena, SAS and KLM, so within a very short space of time Hamburg was once again a truly international airport. The main runway was concreted in 1948 so that it could handle heavier aircraft and the famous Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 proved the immense power of aerial logistics. It is an often overlooked fact that Hamburg, the only civil airfield to be involved, served as one of the most crucial departure points during that historic humanitarian event. Over 200 British civil and military aircraft flew from it as part of the gigantic ‘round the clock’ military airlift that carried all kinds of aid packets to Soviet-held West Berlin.
Lufthansa launches in Hamburg
Initially, no German civil or military flying was allowed in the then east-west divided post-war Germany. However, there was enormous growth in intercontinental traffic carried by foreign airlines in the 1950s. Destinations, including New York, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi and Hong Kong were already being offered direct from Hamburg.
The situation changed dramatically on April 1, 1955, when the country’s national airline, Lufthansa, was re-born. Hamburg was at the forefront of the celebrations that day. The airline’s first services were launched by a Convair 340 ‘Metropolitan’ which left Hamburg for Munich via Dusseldorf and Frankfurt while, at the same time, a second Lufthansa Convair operated the same route in reverse. The airline opened a maintenance base – the forerunner of today’s huge Lufthansa Technik facility – on the south side of the airfield.
The Jet Age
The world’s first jet airline services began from London with the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) in 1952, but the de Havilland Comets that undertook them were plagued by major technical faults and they were soon withdrawn from service. It wasn’t until 1958 when the second – safer – generation of jets, such as the Boeing 707s, were introduced that the jet age truly started to get established. That year Lufthansa placed its first orders for the Boeing 707, but the first jetliner to visit Hamburg – albeit briefly – was a Pan-Am Boeing 707 that flew in during October 1959.
Subsequently, Lufthansa’s first Boeing 707 to be delivered, known as Oscar Bravo, arrived at Hamburg Airport direct from Seattle, USA, on March 2, 1960. It brought huge increases in passenger- and cargo-carrying capacity and therefore made air fares cheaper. This new generation of jets really did seem to make the world feel smaller. However, with their speed halving many long-haul journey times and their engine power enabling them to fly above the weather, they also made air travel much more comfortable than was previously possible.
Fifteen days later Oscar Bravo flew the first jet Hamburg – New York service and in October that year that very same aircraft was officially named Hamburg.
The 1960s were exciting times in terms of technology development heralding what seemed like a headlong rush to build things that were ‘bigger, faster and higher’. The ultimate ‘headline act’ of the decade was the ‘Space Race’ that would eventually put a man on the Moon. From an airport point of view, however, the main issue during the late 1960s and early 1970s was who would win the emerging commercial battle between the competing aircraft manufacturers. Opinions were divided about whether wide-bodied jets, or the equally new Anglo-French supersonic Concorde, would dominate future airline orders. It was an important issue for international airports as they would need to adapt in order to handlethe dominant aircraft types. To a large extent, airports were already expanding rapidly in line with a booming aviation industry and Hamburg, like virtually all the world’s other major airports, extended its runway to cope with the Boeing 707/Douglas DC-8 generation of narrow-body airliners.
Hamburg expanded to cover approximately 500 hectares which is roughly the same size it is today. At the same time, the original 1929 terminal was extensively re-modelled and a new domestic building and cargo facility were added. Hamburg had broken the one million annual passengers milestone in 1961 and by the end of the decade, the wide-bodied jets looked ready to offer air carriers true mass transport machines.
A change in international regulations enabled charter traffic to grow rapidly during the 1960s. While Hamburg’s scheduled traffic doubled between 1965 and 1970, its charter figures actually tripled. As a result, Hangar B, erected in the 1920s for Lufthansa, was converted and expanded into a charter terminal. It remained in service until 1982. However, despite all the improvement work, Hamburg’s continuing growth prompted the city authorities to explore the possibility of re-locating the airport to nearby Kaltenkirchen.
The architects and engineers presented their plans in 1969 and, although these were approved, a long-running air traffic controllers strike, plus the effects of rising fuel prices resulting from the world’s first oil crisis, led to a fall in passenger numbers. This, combined with the problems caused by a vast number of complaints arising from the planning process, effectively stalled the project for many years. The plans to re-locate were officially dropped in 1983.
During this period that same oil crisis had also killed off any hope of widespread orders for the fuel-thirsty Concorde. Few of the supersonic airliners were sold and, in the event, only one example of the type – an Air France machine in April 1976 – visited Hamburg.
Larger but quieter
From 1970, when the wide-bodied Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo’ entered service and reduced airlines’ average costs per seat, even more passengers could afford to experience intercontinental flights. Mass travel had finally arrived. Lufthansa’s first Boeing 747, landed at Hamburg on March 30, 1970 and literally thousands of spectators came to see it. The airport’s apron area had already been strengthened to cope with these 350-tonne giants and its terminal was equipped with a new gate for the huge aircraft and provided the airport’s first two airbridges. Thanks to this new leap in seating capacity, Hamburg’s annual passenger growth exceeded that of its aircraft movements for the first time.
With the rejection of the scheme to re-locate the airport, attention was now focused on the long-term development of the existing site. Plans were approved that would provide a new terminal with eleven new airbridges on its passenger pier. The construction of a new multi-storey car park was also given the green light. The key part of this expansion was the then new Terminal 4 – now known as Terminal 2 – which, after three years of construction work, became operational in 1993. The architect was Meinhard von Gerkan. In the same year, Hamburg Airport handled over seven million passengers for the first time. The growth continued and the eight and nine million milestones were passed in 1995 and 1998 respectively. The airport launched its own website in 1997 and two years later, the airport celebrated its own 80 years of scheduled flights with the first Hamburg Airport Classics show, when 35,000 visitors came to see a display that included 24 vintage aircraft.
It is no exaggeration to say that in terms of the environment, Hamburg Airport is arguably second to none in terms of its pollution research and control. At the start of the 1970s, the airport began its first noise-protection programme. So-called Whisper Premiums were offered to airlines as an incentive to introduce quieter aircraft types on their Hamburg routes. To date, Hamburg Airport has invested around €37 million (US$50m) in noise-protection measures in the surrounding area. Approximately 14,500 local homes have been fitted with noise-proof windows and more than 8,000 noise-proof ventilators across the community. Today, some of the airport’s representatives form part of an international team that provides environmental advice to the global airport community and it has introduced measures that have been copied by other airports. Perhaps one of the most well-known aspects of Hamburg Airport’s environmental work is the fact that it keeps its own bee colony which, through its honey production, is used to monitor the local air quality. This programme has been very successful and has received scientific recognition.
HAM 21 expansion programme
The new millennium began with the first step towards partial privatisation: 36% of the shares in Flughafen Hamburg GmbH were sold to Aer Rianta and Hochtief AirPort. Now, the airport belongs to the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (51%) and Hochtief Concessions (49%).
Today’s airport is the result of its extensive and long-running HAM 21 development programme that prepared its facilities for the 21st Century. It began in 2001 and was the biggest expansion project in its history.
The airport self-financed the entire €356 million (US$485m) investment needed. The original 1929 terminal was demolished, while new access roads, parking facilities adjacent to the terminals, an extension to the Passenger Pier, the new Terminal 1 and the Airport Plaza were all built while business carried on as normal.
Of course the consequences of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US were felt worldwide, and especially so in the aviation industry. These affected both international air traffic and in turn Hamburg’s own HAM 21 project, as the airport’s planners had to change the layout of the security control areas to meet new EU safety regulations. Despite the global post 9/11 drop in passenger numbers, the airport’s management team pushed ahead with its development plans.
By the end of 2009, €356 million (US$485m) had been spent on refurbishing and expanding the airport. Today’s layout extends from the central Airport Plaza which, after the usual security lanes, leads to the retail area, which is credited with revitalising Hamburg’s non-aviation revenues. The Plaza is framed by two state-of-the-art terminals, a dynamic (automated) parking guidance system, broad access roads, and plenty of parking spaces. The S-Bahn (local metro rail) station and a new hotel are within easy walking distance.
Hamburg has adopted the slogan “efficient, beautiful, modern” to symbolise its transformation.
In 2011, 100 years after first opening for business, Hamburg now handles in the region of 13 million passengers per year. Currently, its route network shows approximately 60 airlines flying to more than 115 destinations. Almost 250 airport-based businesses employ around 15,000 staff, while 50 shops and 26 cafés and restaurants help passengers to pass the time before their flights.
With its HAM 21 project complete, no further major expansion is likely to be required for several years to come. For now it is just a case of fine tuning what it has to ensure it stays well placed to meet future demands.
Nobody else knows as much about Hamburg Airport as Alfred Fries, who has first-hand experience of every milestone in its history since 1945, first as one of the German Flying Control Assistants working with Britain’s Royal Air Force and then later as head of the Traffic Division at Flughafen Hamburg GmbH. Traffic Control took in all the ground handling services for aviation: aircraft, baggage, cargo, passenger and visitor services, timetable planning, information and VIP services.
Hamburg was one of the originating airports during the Berlin Airlift at the same time as Alfred was embarking upon his career. “Absolute perfection ruled the day, both in the air and on the ground,” the 91-year-old said as he recalled the precision of the flight operations. “The take-off times were planned down to the minute and coordinated on the basis of aircraft type and flight speed so that everything worked optimally along the fixed flight corridors to Berlin.”
This also meant that the men on the ground had to stick rigidly to the loading times – for the most part without the aid of technology we take for granted today, such as conveyor belts. “If there was fog or mist over Hamburg we would mark the touchdown point for the returning aircraft with yellow flares,” he added. When visibility was poor, petrol-filled containers with wicks, so-called ‘Goose Necks’, were placed along the runway. As well as illuminating the runway, they also generated heat, which helped lift the fog a little, thus making it possible for the airlift aircraft to land safely. A large team of labourers replaced the provisional sheet steel runway with a concrete runway to accommodate the airlift aircraft more easily.
Even after the end of the primarily military operation, Hamburg remained an important hub for transporting valuable economic goods in and out of West Berlin. Alfred Fries can still remember the winters of the early years. “Everyone had to go out and clear the snow by hand.”
After retiring in 1984, the Traffic Controller continued to work at the airport, but this time as a hunter; an important job at Hamburg, ensuring that wild animals do not interrupt or endanger flight operations.
1911 – On January 10, the company Hamburger Luftschiffhallen GmbH was founded in response to the efforts of prominent Hamburg business people and politicians.
1912 – The first airship, the Viktoria-Luise, docked.
1919 – The airline Deutsche Luftreederei GmbH launched the first scheduled aeroplane flight. It flew from Hamburg to Berlin.
1920 – Westerland on the island of Sylt joined the route network. The first international services began, connecting Copenhagen via Hamburg to Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
1923 – Hamburg was the first airport in Germany to be equipped with its own radio station. Its range covered London, Zurich, Stockholm and Warsaw. A total of 5,087 passengers use the airport.
1928 – The airport was connected to the tram network (Line 28/Airport).
1929 – The terminal building, designed by the Dyrssen & Averhoff firm of architects, opened its doors in October.
1932 – The airport company is renamed Hamburger Flughafen-Verwaltung GmbH.
1937 – Passenger numbers reach 57,194.
1939 – Hamburg Airport became a Luftwaffe base and was closed for civil aviation. Camouflage enabled the airport to survive the Second World War without sustaining any damage.
1945 – Now re-named Hamburg Airport, it was under the control of Britain’s Royal Air Force from the end of World War Two until 1950.
1948 – The British, who were running the airport, had the runways concreted to handle new and heavier aircraft. During the Berlin Airlift, Hamburg Airport served as one of the take-off points for the so-called Raisin Bombers.
1950 – On October 1, the airport’s administration passed into German hands.
1951 – The Instrument Landing System (ILS) was introduced.
1954 – The Lufthansa base, today Lufthansa Technik, was built.
1955 – Hamburg was the starting point for the post-war Lufthansa’s first flight (Hamburg-Düsseldorf-Munich). The first radar tower was built in front of the main terminal building.
1959 – On October 25, Pan Am became the first airline to land a Boeing 707 in Hamburg.
1960 – The first Duty Free Shop at Hamburg Airport opened for business, though the sale of duty-free goods during intermediate stops had been trialled at Shannon in Ireland. On March 2, Lufthansa’s first Boeing 707 arrived at Hamburg direct from Seattle. The main runway was extended to 10,662ft (3,250m) to cater for new jets, entered service in October.
1961 – For the first time, Hamburg Airport recorded more than a million passengers in a single year.
1964 – Runway II was extended to its current length of 12,027ft (3,666m).
1966 – Hamburg handled more than two million passengers for the first time.
1970 – The first Lufthansa Boeing 747 landed at Hamburg Airport.
1974 – The last Line 9 tram ran to the airport on May 26.
1975 – Hangar B was refurbished as a charter terminal. It could accommodate 600 passengers at a time.
1976 – An Air France Concorde was a guest at the airport on April 24/25.
1982 – The charter terminal was extended with an annex.
1984 – A new radar tower entered service.
1993 – Terminal 4 (today’s Terminal 2) entered service.
2000 – In July, the first steps towards privatisation were taken: 36% of the shares in Flughafen Hamburg GmbH were sold to Aer Rianta and Hochtief AirPort.
2001 – The largest expansion programme in the history of Hamburg Airport, HAM 21, began. The original terminal building, opened in 1929, was demolished.
2005 – The new Terminal 1 opened in May. Terminal 4 was re-numbered Terminal 2. The charter terminal became the ‘Terminal Tango’ function centre.
2008 – With the opening of the Airport Plaza at the end of the year, the majority of the HAM 21 expansion programme was complete. In December, Hamburg Airport’s S-Bahn (metro rail) connection opened.
2011 – On January 10, Hamburg Airport celebrated its 100th birthday.