The Brancatelli File
IT'S AN AIRPORT THAT WORKS
BY JOE BRANCATELLI
October 7, 1997 -- Whenever the Faustian bargain of business travel becomes particularly difficult, I have learned that the fates restore my equanimity by routing me through Germany's Frankfurt Main Airport.
I long ago abandoned hope that I sold my immortal soul for the opportunity to jet off to exotic locations or sup in the world's great dining rooms. These days, I expect nothing more in exchange for my spiritual self than an aisle seat in coach, a hotel room with a dataport and an airport that isn't a dry run for hell.
Frankfurt Airport, I think, is the devil's good-faith attempt to keep up his end of the bargain.
More than any other place on the business-travel planet, Frankfurt Airport does its job. It gets you in and out in a flash. It is inconceivably efficient as a place to change planes. It is not the fortress hub of any one carrier. It is an extremely pleasant place to loiter. And it is actually near the city it serves.
Why does Frankfurt work so well? A trip there last week reaffirmed what I have always believed: Frankfurt doesn't purport to be an art museum or a shopping mall or a food court, it doesn't foster the conceit that it is "a city within a city" and it doesn't try to be something other than an airport. Freed from all that emotional and cultural baggage, Frankfurt Airport has figured out how to service its traveling constituency.
Want some specifics? Compare these features to the airports that you use on a day-to-day basis.
LOGICAL TRAFFIC PATTERNS
Frankfurt's terminals have common ticketing and check-in areas. After clearing a rigorous security check, passengers proceed directly to their gates via angled concourses. There are no detours, workarounds or diversions.
Arriving passengers get equally direct passage: Baggage claim and customs and immigrations are in a straight line from your arrival gate. And since there are virtually no legal formalities upon arrival in Frankfurt, you can connect to another flight, domestic or international, in as little as 45 minutes.
And when Frankfurt recently added a second terminal, it connected the two buildings with a monorail. Electronic signboards and automated announcements note precise departure and arrival times and multi-lingual airport personnel are always around to direct traffic and answer questions. Travel time: about a minute between terminals.
Frankfurt Airport does not stand alone. It is completely integrated with Frankfurt's commuter railroad network, the comprehensive German national rail system and a bus network that reaches as far as Prague in the Czech Republic.
How is this possible? The Germans built a train station at the airport. Take an escalator from the arrivals or departure levels of the airport and you're at the train station. No long walks, no shuttle-bus transfers, no grudging, outdoor connections.
The convenience of this system is difficult for Americans to fathom. The train ride between Frankfurt Airport and the heart of downtown Frankfurt costs about $3.50 and requires 11 minutes. Let me repeat that: $3.50 and 11 minutes from the airport to downtown.
Worried about the language? Don't be. The machines that dispense train tickets operate in a half-dozen languages. Worried about speed? Don't be. Trains run every 15 minutes. Think a cab would somehow be easier? Forget it. The cabs are admittedly plush, and often Mercedes, but they take at least 20 minutes to reach downtown and cost $20 or more.
And don't think the Germans have ignored the automobile. Travelers who want to park their cars aren't shunted off to lots in the next county. Parking structures at the airport are adjacent to the terminals and connected by hallways.
SERVICES, NOT THEMES
U.S. airports seem convinced that travelers want their airports to be shopping malls or food courts. Not Frankfurt. It has more on-site shops and service facilities than any other airport in the world, yet you never feel as if you've wandered into a mall because the shops are a part of the airport's natural flow.
Frankfurt has plenty of trinket shopping and excellent cafes, restaurants and international fast-food chains, but it also offers travelers a brilliant roster of everyday services. There's a dry cleaner, a shoe-repair shop, an optician, a medical clinic, a dentist, a pharmacist, a hair dresser, a travel agent and a toy store. There's also a disco, and, believe it or not, a full-service supermarket with wonderful fresh breads, fruits and vegetables. Imagine, a fresh vegetable at an airport!
And there are business features every airport in the world should have. If your airline doesn't have a lounge, you can use the centrally located Europe City Club for about $17 a visit. Need a conference room? You can rent one in Terminal Two. Need a day room? Walk to the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport and rent one for half the nightly rate.
And there's one more thing about Frankfurt that sets it apart: an endless army of airport employees that appear the moment you seem lost or confused. I speak German, but I have always been approached by airport staffers in English. I've seen them approach Japanese travelers speaking Japanese and step up to aid French travelers in French.
When the day comes that the devil cashes in and I'm headed for hell after a life of business travel, I hope I'll get to change planes one more time in Frankfurt.
This column originally appeared at TheTrip.com.
Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.