Berliners are holding a referendum to determine the fate of historic Berlin-Tempelhof airport, which played a critical role as a way station for food and fuel during the 'Berlin Airlift' in the aftermath of the Second World War. (Report: E. Irvine)
Berliners went to the polls Sunday for a referendum on whether to save the German capital's historic Tempelhof airport, the hub of the 1948-49 Berlin airlift, from closure.
The vote was organised by backers of the facility just outside the city centre, one of Europe's oldest passenger airports.
About 2.4 million people are eligible to vote though the ballot is not legally binding.
However a strong 'yes' turnout could put pressure on the city-state's government to reverse a decade-old decision to shut down the facility ahead of the opening of an expanded international airport southeast of Berlin in 2011 known as BBI.
Tempelhof's supporters used a multimillion-euro advertising campaign to appeal to Berliners who see the airport as an icon of the city's survival during the Cold War.
But the centre-left Berlin administration has vowed to push forward with its plans to mothball Tempelhof regardless of the outcome of the vote, saying a reversal could threaten investment in the cash-strapped capital.
"Those who are tampering with the closure of Tempelhof are endangering BBI," Berlin economy minister Harald Wolf said.
Those calling for its closure say Tempelhof's central location is a nuisance for residents and a security risk due to low-flying planes in a heavily populated area.
They have called for the creation of a cultural and media centre in its terminal and a park to replace its runways.
But conservatives, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are calling for the airport to be kept open for business commuters until at least 2011.
They say its unique Nazi-era architecture, central location and historical legacy make it irreplaceable.
"Continued operation of Tempelhof is important not only for the economy and jobs," Merkel said recently. "The airport is for many people and me personally a symbol of this city's history."
Surveys show a slim majority of Berliners support Tempelhof's continued operation, particularly westerners and older voters.
Tempelhof opened in 1926 and a vast terminal built a decade later ranks as the largest building in western Europe.
After Berlin was split into east and west following World War II, the Allies ferried hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food, coal and other supplies, mainly into Tempelhof, in a virtually non-stop airlift when the Soviets blockaded West Berlin in 1948.
Even after the blockade was lifted in 1949, shipments continued until September of that year to build up a surplus in case of a renewed attempt by Joseph Stalin to starve West Berlin into submission.
Berliners who were children at the time also fondly recall sweets floating down to the ground when "candy bomber" pilots tossed small bundles from their cockpits with handkerchief parachutes.
German unification in 1990, however, marked the beginning of the end for Tempelhof.
The facility only served 630,000 passengers in 2006, compared to 12 million for Tegel airport on the city's northwestern fringe, and six million at Schoenefeld to the southeast.
When Tempelhof and Tegel are closed, the expanded and modernised Schoenefeld facility is to become the capital's sole airport.
Despite blanket media coverage of the referendum in recent weeks turnout was slow with only about 15 percent eligible voters turning out by 1000 GMT amid sunny spring weather.
The polls were to close at 1600 GMT with preliminary results expected later Sunday.
For the referendum to be valid, one-quarter of electorate or some 611,000 people must cast a ballot.
Date created : 2008-04-27