Monday, January 16, 2006

Frankfurt Airport

The last post on the North Africa Trip....

The Airport as Destination

Travel writers do some of the best writing on the market today, but I’ve always been surprised at how little attention they give to airports.

If you do long distance international trips you spend a lot of time on the ground between flights. Ten hour layovers aren't out of the question, so I'm interested in the ecology of airports out of basic self-preservation.

I ended up stuck in Frankfurt Airport for almost 8 hours on the way back home from Morocco.

Seeing the suffering of poor urban slum dwellers is one thing, but experiencing the inconvenience of first world travel is quite another :^)

Privileged Ranting About Airports

International airports tend to bite.

Here’s my shot at a long distance travelers’ hierarchy of wants:

• Food
• Sleep
• Getting clean
• Exercise

Food’s a no-brainer of course.

When you’re trying to catch up on lost sleep or trying to adjust and readjust your body clock to your destination, getting some sleep at the right time can be pretty useful.

Few activities get you stickier than long distance travel.

And when you’ve been jammed in a seat for 12 hours next to a 230 pound fat guy with the seatback in front of you lowered into your knees, moving around and getting some exercise when you get off the plane can be pretty helpful.

How do most airports score in providing for those desires?

• The food sucks but at least it's expensive.

• Very few airports make a place for economy passengers to rest or sleep. Heathrow in London, which is probably the best international hub, provides relatively quiet sleeping lounges with comfortable chairs that will lay back and let you snooze. I can’t think of another major airport with something similar.

• Getting clean? Forget about it. Again, Heathrow provides a shower area where you can get a towel and a shower for a small price, but I know of no other major airport that offers that kind of service.

• If you want to get loose or exercise, you can either do your stretching or yoga on the carpet in front of your gate or walk in circles from terminal to terminal. McCarran Airport in Las Vegas has a 24 Hour Fitness right in the airport that travelers and airport employees use. Haven't seen that before or since.

Given the emphasis on customer satisfaction and the rise in international travel over the past 10 years, you might those kind of innovative services would be the standard around the world, but not so.

Cruel and Usual Punishment

I could have used a snooze for 4 or 5 hours in Frankfurt to begin resetting my body clock back to Mountain Standard Time in the US, so I asked around to see if they had a sleeping area. Happily, I found an official who told me I was in luck and pointed me in the right direction.

The “rest area” turned out to be a series of lounges set up right next to the main walkway between two terminals.

The designers made the walkway out of hard plastic material studded with circular bumps to increase traction. It created a thunderous sound when anybody dragged their luggage on wheels across it. Multiply that sound by crowds and you’ve got some idea of the acoustics of naptime. It was a little like trying to grab z's next to the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour.

But that wasn’t all. The German engineers responsible for my suffering that day had even more in store.

Along the length of the rest area they installed bright overhead lights and high powered AC ducts in the ceiling, so you got a double whammy of bright light and frigid air blowing directly onto your body.

The lounges themselves may have been the most unkind touch of all.

They looked pretty cool from an aesthetic point of view. Sort of an edgy “Batman” thing with lots of pseudo black leather and sharp angles and an exposed aluminum frame.

They were about as comfortable as that sounds. Rumsfeld probably uses a similar design at Guantanamo.

Laying there exhausted due to sleep deprivation, I tried to block out the noise and light and cold along with the metallic sharp ends jabbing me in the wrong places.

After about an hour I was giggling semi-consciously at my situation.

After about two hours I was ready to confess to pretty much anything.

"Water boarding" or attack dogs couldn't have done more to break a person's spirit than the Frankfurt International Airport Rest Area. I guess being privileged is pretty hard sometimes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Frankfort airport at least reaffirms everything we all think about the German stereotype. What surprises me is that Las Vegas has the full gym. Who would think that in a state with slot machines on every corner that the airport would feature exercise. So much for stereotyping.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I prefer non-stop drives through Las Vegas.

But it's a more full service environment these days that caters to both low life and family life, self-destruction and self-care. I guess the airport is just following suit.

9:09 PM  
Blogger jon said...

I'm sure you've been there before, but I found the Singapore airport amazing.

Virtually every kind of food was available there, of course at a somewhat higher price than you would get elsewhere.

I did not see specific sleeping rooms, but I wouldn't be surprised if they existed. I did see multiple prayer rooms, though, and it would have been quite easy and comfortable to get some shuteye in one of those (especially with the partitions for privacy).

I think that showers were around, but I can't remember for sure.

I'm pretty sure that there were exercise facilities.

On top of that, they had pretty gardens with koi ponds that were pleasant to walk around, and free internet service on free and abundant terminals.

I liked the place a lot.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Hey Jon. No, I actually haven't been there or the new airport in Hong Kong yet which I also hear is amazing. When I go to Asia I almost always fly in through Taipei and Bangkok. I'm hoping the new airports do it better.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous John Teter said...

Thanks for the vivid description. I especially liked the fat man sweating on you. I chime in on the smoking issue in international terminals. I had a day long layover in Istanbul and must have smoked a pack and a half vicariously through my Turkish brothers and sisters. I felt like the Marlboro man when I finally got on the plane.

7:44 PM  

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