Saturday, 25 September 2010

Why "I hate FRA"

It's not the City, it's the Airport.

Frankfurt am Main itself is fine, not my first choice of destination, but it has its charms and merits. It's also quite expensive as you'd expect from a world financial capital. It has good museums and the annual Museumsuferfest is well worth a visit. I'm eagerly awaiting the next Wolkenkratzer Festival in 2013 as well for a chance to gain admittance to some of its main skyscrapers. It would be an excellent place to explore the surrounding areas from as it has very good public transport, but I have yet to find a satisfactory hotel there. Good wurst stands on the street though.

The airport however, is hell on earth. Well, a minor league hell on earth, there are worse out their - LYS (Lyon Saint-Exupéry) for instance is truly squalid. LAX (Los Angeles International) is a disgrace as a major international airport and the late, unlamented LHR Terminal 2 (Londump Heathrow) looked like it belonged in a bankrupt Third World country.

FRA however is a deeply unsatisfactory place, as a Lufthansa Frequent Flyer I spent quite a bit of time and money trying to avoid the damn place. We are lucky enough in Birmingham to have LH also fly to their hubs at MUC (Flughafen München-Franz Josef Strauß)  or DUS (Flughafen Düsseldorf International). I'll happily pay a £50 premium to avoid FRA and use one of those two. There are a couple of other options, but I'll explore why those are similarly undesirable in a later blogpost.

So what's so wrong with FRA. As an Origination and Destination Airport it's not brilliant, but it's not mindbendingly awful, it's the horrors of connecting there that make it my number one place to avoid in Europe. It could do with better food and drink options, but at least the ones that are there aren't atrociously expensive (just expensive). Terminal 1 is a bit of a building site and has been for the last couple of years, but apart from the signage and a general fugly feeling in some places, that can be lived with. It obviously has the nearly incomparable First Class Terminal with probably the best ground service in the world, but I'm not likely to see the inside of that for a couple of years and some of the other airline lounges are dire. The A26 "Business Lounge" frankly is best described as a slum.

It's connecting that makes FRA so horrid, especially non-Schengen to Schengen which is what most of my connections are. You arrive at a remote stand or if they feel like teasing you at a gate. You get off the aircraft and are faced with a bus even if you are at a gate. The bus then takes you on a magical mystery tour of Frankfurt airport to end up at the B50-B54 bus gates - this can take up to 15 minutes. Even if you are on another gate you still get the bus because all UK passengers must end up at the B50-B54 bus gates. This gate area is particularly vile, although I understand the B60-2 gates are even worse. For instance, there are no toilets in this dark and dingy area. If you ask why you get this, you are told it's an EU regulation, what they fail to tell you is because FRAport can't be arsed to provide the correct facilities is that they are interpreting the regulation as to just dump you in with all the other non-Schengen passengers and make you re-clear security when you don't need to.

You then get forced up a narrow escalator/stairway into the main non-Schengen area, this didn't used to be the case, but they've installed some new passageways (for the moment) which makes it a nasty and unpleasant crush.

Next comes immigration, which to be honest as an EU citizen is a breeze, you rarely queue for more than two minutes and it's a fairly cursor scan of the passport. The officers are polite and quite friendly - one or two of them are fairly cute as well.  There's something about a man in a uniform... Obviously, if you are connecting to non-Schengen, then you don't need to go through immigration here although if you are going to A non-Schengen, the Skytrain awaits. Post immigration there is a small row of Raucherhuetten (smoking cabins) for those of use who partake of the evil weed (and it's much need to fortify yourself for the next bit).

Then, if you are going leaving the airport, it's a breeze, however, if it's a connection, this is where the fun starts. I'm usually departing onwards for Schengen and I'm going from the A gates. Now the A concourse is some distance from the B concourse and they are connected by either the Skytrain or the "Tunnel of Love", but first you have to go through security. Now this security check is just inept, you can either go through the incredibly slow queues by immigration or follow the signs which lead you to the larger transit security. If there's more than about 10 people waiting at the small transit, go to the larger one.

There is the usual massive snake, which far bigger than it needs to be, but skipping under the barriers to avoid three or four empty lanes of the snake is strictly Verboten and will cause an epidemic of Vogon shouting. Be warned, whilst FRA isn't a shoe carnival airport, the magnetometers are set to fry and I suspect even your fillings will set it off. You will then be frisked. In general the security staff speak little English and in some cases their German is pretty ropey as well. They also like your wallet and travel documents in the bins to go through the X-ray, I don't like this, but it's their rules. Security will take 5-15 minutes depending on your arrival time in my experience.

Now you are free to make your way to the gate and get your next flight, but you probably have the Tunnel of Love to transit. It's a long underground passageway with blue lighting and lots of travelators. At each end there are lifts up and down to it, they are pretty slow. It's full of people running through it who realise that they have already wasted 20-30 minutes of their connecting time and have maybe 10-20 minutes to get to their connecting flight (Minimum connecting time at FRA is 45 minutes, this is really pushing it and is not recommended). If you walk on the travellators, you'll find it takes about 5 minutes to transit the Tunnel of Love. I hate the Tunnel of Love, expand the bloody Skytrain FRAport.

You emerge about 25% of the way up the A-concourse. If your next gate is in the A1-A20 range you've pretty much made it. If it's A40-something, you've got about 500m  to walk yet.  If you have time and access, there's a full range of overcrowded and unkempt Lufthansa lounges by A26. The Illy coffee stand down by the A30's is, however, pretty decent.

The main art at FRA is to follow the signs, whilst sometimes a little confusing, they are generally correct and as FRA will have changed its layout between any two visits more than a month apart it's not worth trying to work out neat little shortcuts or optimum routes. The only problem with this is access to some of the C-concourse gates where the wrong turn can mean you end up having to go through security twice.

Let's be honest, this isn't a wonderful experience. Most other European airports are much easier to connect at - inter-terminal transfers at Heathrow are no fun at all and I get badly lost at Charles de Gaulle (as does my baggage). However, virtually everywhere else in Europe is a breeze compared to FRA.

Of course, my next two sets of flights involve connecting at FRA. 

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