“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ll shortly be landing at Václav Havel Airport…”

Photo: Filip Jandourek

Planes bound for Prague will no longer be landing at Ruzyně Airport; at midday Friday the airport was officially renamed Letiště Václava Havla Praha, or Václav Havel Airport Prague at a lavish ceremony in Terminal 2. Some 80,000 people signed a petition organised by the film producer Fero Fenič to rename the airport to honour the late former president, who died in December.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Moderator Marek Eben counted down a line of dignitaries, scissors in hand, as they cut a length of airport tape to mark the renaming of Prague's Ruzyně Airport as Václav Havel Airport Prague. Guests included the late former president's widow Dagmar, Finance Minister Miloslav Kalousek, the Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka and also the Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who was once Havel's chancellor.

Mr Schwarzenberg said in his speech how Havel had opened the doors to freedom, and what better than renaming an airport after him as a way of preserving the legacy of freedom for Czechs. Radio Prague asked Mr Schwarzenberg for his thoughts on what would have been Václav Havel's 76th birthday.

“We always gathered together on his birthday, and had a wonderful day or evening with him. Now for the first time he’s not among us, and I’m very glad this airport is being named after him, because actually he opened the world to our population. And if today young Czechs can travel around and study around the world, it’s due to him. So I hope that anybody who enters this airport remembers the man who fought for their freedom.”

Miroslav Kalousek,  Dagmar Havlová,  Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
Some 500 guests attended the ceremony although there were two notable omissions; Prime Minister Petr Nečas is attending an EU conference in Bratislava, and a spokesman for President Václav Klaus - who clashed openly with Havel on so many issues - said he had a prior engagement. Those who did address the crowd spoke of the great irony at the airport being named Ruzyně - also home to a nearby prison where Havel was incarcerated several times - and then renamed after that jail's most famous former prisoner.

There was however a minor linguistic tussle over the name of the airport in English. Initially it was to be the unwieldy Prague Airport - Václav Havel, a name that prompted howls of protest. Commentator Václav Pinkava, who lived for many years in the UK, started an informal campaign to correct the English name.

“It was originally mooted as Prague Airport - Václav Havel, and when I saw that, I went absolutely livid, it just got me out of my chair. I started pacing up and down and I thought – right, I’ve got to do something about this. I thought - I can’t leave it and every time I go through the airport think I should have done something about it.”

Václav Havel
What was it about it that upset you?

“Well it made it sound like Havel had just been turned into an airport. It was like in Ikea where you have these names of items of furniture and they have people’s names. I mean it’s not good English. I think they’d been influenced by French English and German English and there’s the Berliner Airport Willy Brandt which isn’t finished yet, and it’s all just a typical case of let’s not actually ask anybody who speaks the language, let’s just get it wrong and insist on it. I just think there’s been plenty of that and it’s time it stopped. And it is an international airport, so that’s the one place it ought to be right.”

So it’s now Václav Havel Airport Prague – are you happy with that?

“Yeah. I think it would have been even better to call it Havel International Prague because that could be HIP for short, but then you’d lose the Václav, and being a Václav myself I’m against that! It was also a sore point that they should have the accent on the ‘á’, after all it’s an acute accent, it’s there in French as well, it’s not like some obscure accent like ‘ř‘, so why not?”

That debate it now settled, and from now on Havel's name will forever be imprinted on the minds of those visiting the Czech capital, and Czechs too will pause to reflect on him each time they board a plane.