One of the purest examples of the importance of packaging can be found in the Berlin Airlift.

One of the purest examples of the importance of packaging can be found in a book I read not too long ago: “The Berlin Airlift,” by Ann and John Tusa.

A word of background: After World War II, Germany was divided into occupation zones by the victorious Allies. The east, where the Soviet Union held sway, included Berlin, which itself was divided into occupation zones.

In the spring of 1948, the Soviets decided they wanted all of Berlin and so instituted a blockade of the western part of the city, which was controlled by the Western Powers. The West had neither the military capacity nor the political will to fight its way into western Berlin. Instead, the West organized a 24/7/365 airlift to feed and supply the 2.5 million residents of western Berlin entirely through the air.

Every cubic foot of airplane cargo space was precious and had to be used to the utmost. That’s where packaging came in. The airlift’s planners and handlers found themselves driven mad by:

-Pasta packed in paper sacks, which broke.
-Cookies with insufficiently protective packaging, which turned them into crumbs.
-Dried potato (fresh ones were much too heavy to fly in) packaged in sacks of different sizes. For some reason, manufacturers resisted requests to standardize sack sizes.
-Barrels, which sounded like a good idea but didn’t work. Barrels of fish were too awkward to unload; fish had to be canned and case-packed. Barrels of butter burst.
-Coal packed in sacks of all shapes and sizes, making it nearly impossible to load efficiently.
-Coal sacks that were supposed to be returned after use but disappeared. At one point, desperate logicians were using potato and flour bags, rucksacks and mattress ticking.

But these problems were overcome. For about a year, the Berlin airlift kept western Berlin alive and out of the hands of the Soviets, who eventually lifted the blockade. Soon afterward, the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany. (Don’t you love how Communists threw around words like “democratic” and “republic”?) Much later, of course, the Soviet Union fell and Germany was reunited.

The airlift kept West Berliners from having to spend a generation under Communism. That’s a pretty nifty package.