I’ve been through Frankfurt Airport a number of times, yet its size and layout never fail to confuse me. Apparently this place confuses even its employees.
My plane from Portland arrived three hours late. With an original layover of six hours, that wouldn’t seem to be a problem. But it’s surprising just how much time I used up trekking from one gate area to another, and how many different answers I received when I asked employees where to go.
I checked for my next flight and found it was in Terminal 1, C gates. So I naturally followed signs for C1 until I reached a huge switchbacked line of people waiting to go through immigration. The sign for C1 pointed firmly in the direction of the waiting crowd. I was about to join the queue, but then I noticed a sign for the toilets. If the line was going to be that long, I had better go there first.
On the way down a long, long hall, I thought about it again: Why would I go through the immigration line when I’m getting on another plane? So after exiting the toilets, I hunted down another employee. “My flight leaves from C1, and I’m not sure I should be going through immigration,” I said. “You need to go down one level,” she said, gesturing in a different direction.
I reached C1 again, from a different perspective, but this time could only view the action through glass walls. I asked another employee, who told me I was on the wrong level and needed to go upstairs. Now I was thoroughly confused, but I trudged up a set of stairs and followed the signs to C1, eventually reaching an entirely new and equally crowded line. Again, it was marked for immigration, and again, I was confused. I stood for a moment, trying to figure out what I should do, growing hot and sweaty in this glass-walled hall full of other hot and sweaty travelers, all pressing forward into an ever-thickening cluster of people all trying to peer around those in front of them. Surely I didn’t need to be standing with all these people in a non-moving immigration line just to get a boarding pass for a connecting flight?
There was a hall branching to the left, where I could hear various voices calling out in German for passengers on different flights: Qatar Airways, Lufthansa, Etihad. I watched as a man asked a tall employee where those with non-European Union passports should go. “I don’t know, sir,” the employee answered in a polite but despairing voice. The passenger’s face registered disgust, and he turned to stride down the long hall.
Whether he knew about EU passports or not, this tall fellow my only visible option. I walked over to him, and looked up. And I do mean up. He was at least six and a half feet tall, and I’m not even five-four. “May I ask you a question?”
He looked down, amused. “Yes?”
“I need a boarding pass for my next flight, and I have no idea where to go.”
He pulled a large mobile phone out of his pocket, and asked for my flight number. He looked it up, and then said, “You need to go to C6. That’s your departure gate.”
“Oh,” I said. “The display board said C1, so I went there.”
“No,” he responded. “That means Terminal 1, C gate area. You are looking for gate C6.”
“I don’t need to go to a ticket counter?”
“No, no. You will be issued your boarding pass at the gate.”
I thanked the tall man, and he promptly mounted the bicycle he’d been holding onto – which I hadn’t noticed until this moment – and rode down the hall past the tightly clustered passengers still waiting to get through the immigration line.
It wasn’t hard to find C6. It was in a huge hall extending out to both sides, silent and empty. I could almost hear an echo. Straight in front of me were the only two people visible, other than me: a friendly-looking man behind the C6 counter and an apple-cheeked, blonde young lady holding a bicycle. They were chatting together, but as soon as the man saw me, he broke off his conversation and asked how he could help.
I told him what I needed, and he looked amused. “You are much too early,” he said. I didn’t need to be there for at least an hour and a half, he explained. I asked if there was anywhere I could get a cup of coffee; I couldn’t see any sign of a coffee stand, nor even a vending machine.
Now both the man and the young lady looked amused. “There is nothing here,” they said. “Nothing.” The man explained I could either go to Gate Area B, and go through security first, or take the train to Terminal 2, where I would find “entertainment.”
“I just want a cup of coffee,” I said.
Suddenly the young lady spoke up: “I will show you the way.” she said. She turned her bike around, and we began walking together down a long hall. We made turns, went up an escalator – she simply pushed her bike onto it – and we got off and walked some more. I began to make conversation, asking how she liked working at the airport. “I like my colleagues,” she said. “They come from so many different places. I learn about these cultures, about the food.” She explained that the bicycle was absolutely necessary for the job: “Sometimes you have to get somewhere quickly.”
We kept walking and chatting, and I checked how long it was taking. By the time we find this coffee, I thought, I may not have time to drink any. At one point, the young lady parked her bike so she could push open a huge heavy door that had looked pretty locked to me.
“I wouldn’t have thought to go that way,” I said.
“I don’t know why they close those doors,” said the girl. “Sometimes they do really stupid things here.”
When we reached the train, the young lady exclaimed, then reached for her phone. “The train isn’t going to Terminal 1,” she said in German. She listened for a bit, said, “Danke,” and hung up. “So the train won’t take me to Terminal 1?” I asked. “No, but you can go on foot,” she said.
We meandered back through long halls, down the stairs to get her bike, and then she pointed me down what looked like a mile-long hall with just a couple of people in it. “That way, keep straight,” she said. “Just straight. You will see the shops and restaurants.”
I checked my watch again. Still plenty of time, and certainly all this walking was better than sitting in the long empty hall in front of C6, with one employee – no matter how nice – staring at me.
I continued straight, as I’d been told, but “straight” wasn’t actually straight. New nearly-empty halls angled off in different directions. Some were filled with cots of metal tubing with black cloth stretched over the frames, looking like stretchers. The effect, in these eerily long halls, was of an impromptu hospital set up in a strangely tidy emergency zone – though I suppose the most likely emergency would be winter storms delaying lots of flights, and that the cots are for stranded passengers.
Eventually I found my coffee. I drank it, caught up on news and messages (the free wifi is really fast), and then made my way back through a new maze of empty halls. I have no idea why it wasn’t the same route I’d taken before. I had time along the way to stop and look out the windows onto billboards and faraway bits of the city of Frankfurt. It struck me suddenly that even though I’ve been through Frankfurt Airport a number of times, even though I studied German for a couple of years in college, and even though this is a western country, if I walked out of the airport with the intention of staying for some time, there would be a lot to adjust to. It would be no easier than settling into India, or Egypt, or Jordan, or Pakistan, or Sudan. It would be as different and exotic as anywhere I’ve been: gray and northern, with a culture all its own.
If you’re flying through Frankfurt, remember that when you check the digital display boards for your connecting flight, the terminal number is the first thing to consider. Make sure you are in, or get yourself to, the correct terminal. Then you need to find the lettered gate area. Once you’re in, say the C area, then you can go find your gate (C10, C3, etc.)
There are loads and loads of resting areas in FRAport, but not all of them have electrical outlets for your laptop or phone. Check for these before you settle yourself down.
Food at FRAport is expensive, but it’s good. Yogurt, vegetable salads, breads and other items are fresher and taste better than at most other airports I’ve been to. As for other goods, you can buy pretty much anything you want: clothing, caviar, books, gifts, liquor, perfume, makeup and more.
Most important of all: When you book a connecting flight from Frankfurt, make sure you have a nice long layover. I would consider three hours the minimum you need. The airport is simply enormous, and it’s about to get bigger: They are building a new terminal at such a distance from the rest of the airport, it will take a long bus ride to get there.
Last but not least: You can take a shower at FRAport. And after dragging yourself around for a couple of hours, you might really want one.