Air travel can be a tribulation anywhere but traveling through the world’s mega-airports is never high on my list of fun things to do. Last week, I spent some time at Heathrow (in London) and at Frankfurt International airport – two of the world’s dozen busiest, and some would say best-avoided, airports. These temples of transit require travelers to demonstrate the patience of Job, the endurance of an ultra-marathon runner and a good sense of humor to roll with the inevitable hassles. But which airport is best avoided if you are transiting through Europe and have options – Heathrow or Frankfurt Airport?
I lived in the Balkans for a spell several years ago when I was in the Foreign Service, and the government would frequently route us through Frankfurt, which was rated the 11th busiest airport in the world last year, with just over 57 million passengers transiting it in 2012. Our usual rule of thumb was that if the layover time was less than two hours, we knew the chances of making the onward flight was about 50-50 if it was in the 60- to 90-minute range. Less than an hour? No chance, particularly if you checked bags and hoped to see them again.I do not enjoy flying. My preferred modes of transport are, in this order: train, boat, bike, car, plane and bus. And so, when my plane touches down on a runway after a long flight, I can’t wait to get off the plane. In Frankfurt, though, one can taxi for so long that it seems as though the pilot might be planning to drop you off in Salzburg. Planes taxi for what seems like forever and then you often have to schlep your things onto a bus and then shuttle into the terminal.
But I like to people watch at airports and on this score, Frankfurt is awfully good. There are mysterious looking women in niqabs and burkas; flashy-tracksuit wearing Russian mafiosos and their showy girlfriends, weighed down in gaudy jewelry and shopping bags; Africans in colorful robes carrying enormous plastic bags and suitcases sealed tight in cellophane wrapping; beer guzzling Germans and their worldly dogs; and plenty of backpackers about to wash back up on their parent’s doorsteps after spending their last rupees on a bag of mushrooms and Tibetan prayer flags in Katmandu.
I had a full two-hour layover in Frankfurt last week, en route from Chicago to London, but I just barely made my connection. (This was the only way I could redeem miles to get to London during Wimbledon.) In fairness, the flight touched down 15 minutes late and we taxied for an eternity, so I wasn’t in the terminal for two hours, but I felt like I walked about 5 miles and stood in I don’t know how many lines before I got to my gate just after boarding had begun for my connecting flight. I was soaked in sweat from hauling all my gear and suffering from that putrid, exhausted feeling you have after a sleepless night on a transatlantic flight.
Frankfurt has good rail links and some reasonably appealing shopping and dining options but it’s the kind of place where you want to allow a huge amount of time. And think twice about hauling a lot of carry-on baggage there.
I’ve traveled in and out of Heathrow, the world’s third busiest airport in 2012 with some 70 million passengers, many times over the years and I have just two nice things to say about it: you can access it via London’s tube and there are plenty of bookstores and newsstands. I wasn’t sure what terminal my flight was in and there are three tube stops – one for terminal 1, 2 and 3; and one each for terminals 4; and 5. I played the odds and got out at the 1/2/3 stop at 1:15 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. flight.
I booked the flight with United and it had a UA flight number, so I followed the signs to terminal 1. It was about a 15-minute walk, made unpleasant for me only because I was hauling too much stuff, but alas, it turned out that I was on an Air Canada codeshare, and the Canucks are based in terminal 3. After another 15-minute walk, I was thrilled to walk right up to the counter and secure my boarding pass with no wait.
But my luck ran out going through security. I’ve been in longer lines before – much longer ones, in fact – but perhaps never a slower one. I can’t tell you precisely how long I was in line, because I wasn’t wearing a watch and was carrying a broken iPhone, but I think it took a good hour. My backpack was singled out for a search but there were three other bags to be inspected by one laconic young South Asian woman who moved as fast as one might walk down a gang-plank toward some waiting crocodiles.
Once I was deemed not to be a militant jihadist or suicidal crackpot, there was another long walk in store and then another line to, get this, approach the gate area. After showing our passports and boarding passes, we rounded the corner and joined another line to do the exact same thing again. And then I was stuck in the gate waiting area with no access to shops or restaurants. A fellow passenger told me it was 3:10, very nearly two hours after I’d stepped off the tube, and the business class passengers had already boarded our flight to Montreal. It was a 60-degree day but my shirt was soaked with perspiration. Travel can be an ordeal at times, and little did I know at that point that I still had a two-hour delay in Montreal in store, plus a nearly hour-long line to get a cab in Chicago.
The verdict? CNN rated Heathrow the third most hated airport in the world, behind just Paris-Charles de Gaulle and LAX on their list of 10 most hated airports, but left Frankfurt off the top 10. I’m with them; I’ll take Frankfurt over Heathrow but it’s close. Let’s say I would avoid Heathrow like the plague, whereas I’d only avoid Frankfurt like a curable venereal disease.