Heathrow Or Frankfurt: Two Of The World’s Worst Airports?

frankfurt airportAir 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.

Heathrow: The shut-down that wasn’t

heathrow shut-down

It wasn’t the Heathrow shut-down of the decade, that’s for sure.

As widely reported, there was a public sector strike yesterday in the United Kingdom. The biggest fear within the travel industry and media was that London’s Heathrow Airport would go into heavy-delay meltdown, but the anticipated chaos never materialized. In the Guardian, Robert Booth and Alan Travis reported yesterday that Heathrow remained calm and relaxed throughout the day, a result of a concerted effort on the part of UK authorities to encourage airlines to operate at lower capacity and to cancel a small number of flights.

Booth and Travis also site a BAA employee’s claim that the UK Border Agency partnered with authorities in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to increase scrutiny of passengers bound for the UK as a pre-screening measure. Immigration agents at Heathrow were replaced by civil servants and police officers.

The one-day strike was prompted by pension reforms announced by the current government. These reforms, if enacted, will force public sector workers to contribute more of their income to their pensions and will also raise the retirement age. To add insult to injury, the strike came a day after the government announced that public sector workers would only see annual income increases of one percent through 2014, despite annual inflation rates of around five percent. Many institutions were affected by the strike. Most schools in the UK were closed yesterday, as were many other public offices.

Today is expected to be a more difficult day at Heathrow despite the return of Border Agency staff to work, given the passenger backlog from cancelled flights. Anxious passengers may have some of their questions answered by the airport authority’s FAQ.

[Image: Flickr | .curt.]

Europe flights still delayed as airports try to catch up

Europe, London, snowThousands of travelers in Europe still don’t know if they’ll be home for Christmas as airports struggle to deal with a huge backlog of flights. Unusually heavy snowfall in Northern Europe led to cancellations in several countries. London’s Heathrow airport was hardest hit. BBC reports that the UK Army offered to help, but Heathrow refused.

The world’s busiest airport is only running at 30 percent capacity until at least 6a.m. Thursday, and extension of 24 hours beyond the original announcement. Since Heathrow is a hub for so many airlines, this is affecting many other airports.

A friend of mine here in Madrid had two flights to the UK canceled before she finally got on a plane that took her home. She was one of the lucky ones. Five thousand people had to camp out at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, most of whom were headed to London.

So if you’re flying to, from, or within Europe, make sure to check your flight before heading to the airport.

[Photo courtesy Alexandre Moreau Photography via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Heathrow invites you to kiss under the world’s largest mistletoe

Remember that scene from the movie “Love Actually” that takes place in Heathrow Airport? The one where everyone is arriving and being greeted with big hugs and happy kisses from their loved ones? That may be what Heathrow really looks like now that the airport has hung the world’s largest mistletoe.

The 10X8 structure, which weighs 43kg, will hang in Terminal 5 through December (and according to the Heathrow press release), other giant mistletoe will be hung in Terminals 1, 3, and 4.

Heathrow officials expect nearly 3 million people to arrive at Heathrow in the coming month, with close to 500,000 of them coming between December 19th and December 24th alone. The airport is hoping that 2 million kisses will take place beneath the giant mistletoe this month.

Plan your airport layover with T+L’s Airport Navigator

I hate airports. I hate sitting around and waiting, and I hate being unable to escape the thought that soon my plane will be the one zooming down the runway and lifting off into the sky. So rather than arrive early to the airport and allow myself time to get anxious about flying, I prefer to arrive at the last possible second, so that as I run through security and down the terminal, I don’t have time to think about my fears.

Unfortunately, sometimes I have an unavoidable mid-length layover at an airport – one that’s too short for me to go out and explore the city and too long for me to just sit at the gate and wait for my next flight. At those times, I need to find something to do to keep my mind occupied. Often, this means that I end up wandering the unfamiliar airport for about an hour in search of something good to eat, before giving up and buying the next thing I see – usually an uninspired sandwich or a bag of chips.

Next time, I’ll check Travel and Leisure’s Airport Navigator for tips on my airport before I go. For each of 20 airports, T+L has put together a list of places to eat and drink, shop, things to see and do, and places to relax. They’ve covered several major hubs in Europe – London, Madrid, Rome, Paris, and Amsterdam among them – plus major Asian airports like Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. They’ll give you the scoop on Sydney, Cairo, Dubai, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, along with info on Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, but coverage in the US is non-existent.

Along with listings of each airport attraction, the guide offers reviews, websites, hours and price ranges.