Subsidy-guzzling East German auto, airline operations sputter to a halt

May 01, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Two of former East Germany's most potent symbols were given the boot yesterday when the state privatization office stopped production of the tiny Trabant automobile and closed down the former national airline, Interflug.

Despite the fame of the Trabi and Interflug, they were losing money and costing taxpayers up to $1 million a week in subsidies. The German privatization office, which has the task of either selling or closing former East German state-owned businesses, could not find a buyer and so shut them down.

More than 8,000 people will be added to the unemployment rolls, joining the nearly 3 million already out of work or underemployed in eastern Germany.

The Trabi sputtered and lurched to international stardom in 1989 when lines of the small square cars poured over the German-German border after East Germany opened the Berlin Wall.

Germans dubbed the 30-year-old design "car of the year," but most people who had to drive it quickly bought quieter, faster and less-polluting Western makes. Abandoned Trabis along roadsides soon became symbols of former East Germans' desire to unify as quickly as possible and to get rid of everything related to East Germany.

Still, people had been willing to wait 15 years to take delivery of the little two-stroke cars. The cars were so in demand that they could be sold after eight years for their original price of $6,000.

Unfortunately, however, the car cost $7,200 to produce, and the privatization office was unwilling to continue subsidizing its production.

People in the small eastern German city of Zwickau, where the Trabi was built, knew that sooner or later the region's biggest employer would have to close. Of the company's 9,000 workers, about 3,000 are expected to be able to find other work nearby.

The Trabi's farewell had an air of pathos and absurdity, perhaps because the 3,096,099th and last Trabi was a pink station wagon. A brass band played a sad tune as workers stood around idly.

"We always laughed about it, but it was a strong car. It never let me down," said Christian Schroeder, 37, a welder.

Although almost every eastern German knows how bad the Trabi was in comparison with Western makes, few can as readily accept Interflug's closure.

The airline was once the most visible overseas symbol of East Germany, with safe, comfortable service and reliable schedules. For many East Germans, it was the most obvious sign that their country was an important industrialized nation. The books in the privatization office, however, tell a different story.

The airline's fleet of mostly Soviet aircraft are, on average, 20 years old, and the three Western-built Airbuses that it runs are only leased from the manufacturer. It also had few attractive routes to offer, with many going to Communist capitals such as Moscow, Havana or Hanoi.

The privatization office had to pump in about $500,000 each week to keep the airline running.

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