An ode to TXL

Tomorrow in a week I will leave Berlin for Teruel in Spain, to attend the 2012 10th Annual meeting of the EAVP (European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists). I’ll surely blog about the meeting later, for now I would like to rant and rave a bit about airports, on the occasion of a very unexpected departure from Tegel airport (TXL).

Berlin used to have three airports: famous (Berlin Airlift!) Tempelhof dating back to pre-war times, Schönefeld in the East, the ex-“main airport of East Germany”, and Tegel.

Tegel as a modern-day airport really dates back the the Berlin Airlift, when the French built a runaway to alleviate overcrowded Tempelhof. In the late 1950s, new commercial airplanes like the Boeing 707 were too big for Tempelhof’s runway, and in the long run Tegel became the prime commercial airport of West Berlin. Commercial operations started in 1960, and in 1974 a new terminal complex opened. This is still in operation, and it is the reason for this combined rant/rave post.

Berlin Tegel airport from wikimedia commons
by user Axel Mauruszat, license see here.

Ugly, hu? “Some [airports] attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort” wrote Douglas Adams – Tegel (short: TXL) seems to compete in that category. But I’ll forgive any ugliness if the building is efficient. And after having been through many airports all over Europe, England (not part of Europe in this respect; they are a league of their own and it is no wonder than an Englishman wrote the above sentence, as well as the rest of the paragrpah in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), China and North America, I can only say: TXL is the most efficient airport in the world!

Let me take this one level back and talk about what an airport is. I grew up with the understanding that

an airport is a place that offers the chance to switch from one means of transportation to another means, with one or both of them being aeroplanes.

That’s what TXL is.

Today, idiotically, airports are more like giant, overpriced shopping malls forcibly shoved into your eyes, ears and nostrils (more on that later – aargh!), with accidentally dropped gates in random places reachable only after a marathon-length march. You may get to the airport very quickly and efficiently, but then the horrors start. Signs for ticket counters and check-ins are efficiently hidden behind giant ad boards, there are more shops around the check-in area than actually open check-ins, and once you pass security the scam really gets going.

At best, you know what gate to go to, and you can reach it – dodging some 15,000+ shops – in under 95 minutes. On foot, obviously – they want to get you tired, thirsty and footsore, so that you get tempted to buy something at the outrageous prices they justify with…. erh, nothing, really. Water doubles to triples its price by you passing security. So do soda drinks, bagels, fries….. I am very sure there is some deeper meaning to this, something that should allow inferences on the unifying Theory of Everything. If only we’d be able to study it – but we’re too tired, thirsty and footsore to do so.

The worst of all airports do one of tow things – or both: Drop you smack into a shop, preferably a perfumery, or put you on hold in a shopping mall until your gate is announced in time for an Olympic champion to barely make it to it. Some do both. Heathrow Terminal 5, I am looking at you!

Why is that so bad?
First off, dropping you into a shop is simply impolite. I ignores your choices as a customer, forces you to ward off aggressive sales people (admittedly, this happened to me only once – normally they are far too arrogant to care for thirst, tired and footsore passengers), and worst of all means you have to navigate your way between overflowing shelves of horribly expensive useless stuff, instead of just plodding straight on to your gate. I don’t WANT to stand semi-dressed (belt still off), draped with a bunch of half-open bags, in a fucking perfumery! Nor a news stand! I want to have a few square meters to sort my things out without getting into people’s way, and then I want to be able to hobble on to the gate without worrying about my bag catching either a shelf and dumping lots of stuff on the ground, or hitting some poor soul in the back.

Perfumeries are the worst of this form of torture, because they stink and are populated by an especially vile and distasteful breed of salespeople. How can anyone in their right minds not realise that while any one perfume might smell good, in modest dosage, mixing 50 different ones in random amounts, with some of them guaranteed to have musk in them, makes the resulting fragrance akin to 4-week-dead skunk? Add to that the braindead looks of the men(?) and women(?) on the placards, plus the pity-triggering Sahel-zone looks of many of the girls and I always must fight down an urge to projectile vomit at the nearest plastic smile or arrogantly turned back, and go on a good old rampage.

Then, at some airports, they expect me to wander from one announcement board to the next, ever hoping to finally see the gate I need to rush to listed. Obviously, the boards are set up and have a type size that means I have to pass by one shop or food place after another. Or sit tight with the (artificially increased I am sure) smell of pizza or coffee wafting by for hours…. only to find that my flight today leaves from Gate Z 34985! That’s half-way to the next continent, with airports along the European/Asian and Asian/Indian border being the only known exceptions. There, the gate *is* on the other continent.

So I rush some more, jostling people out of my way and getting even more tired, thirsty and footsore. All intended – I am to buy drinks and a newspaper or book a the gate, where my flight will invariably board 20 minutes AFTER the announced time. At the earliest. Miraculously, the flight can still leave on time, too.


Enough ranting. What makes TXL different?

Everything! And it is best described by taking you along on a typical visit to it.

Departing from TXL

You can get to Tegel airport only by car. Private, taxi, bus. A planned subway station (planned since 1960) was never built, which tells you a lot about the city of Berlin. So either you arrive by bus, which stops in front of the Terminal building. Assuming you’re flying out of the Terminal A, (B and D is for tiny planes only, and I’ll talk about C later) you enter it via one of two entrances, and come into this area:

Inside of TXL Terminal main building, by wikimedia user Matti Blume, used under license here.

That’s TXL’s shopping area – almost all of it! There is a small additional entrance area with (useful) shops such as currency exchange, public transport tickets, etc., and there are a few more shops around the gates area, but they are unobtrusively placed, and most of them offer stuff you may actually need at an airport (souvenirs & food). The signs are placed so that you can actually see them, and they show you the way to your check-in very clearly. Go there, which is a rather short walk, and be happy….

Alternatively, arriving by car,your driver will pull out of the access road into a small area with a huge announcement board. It shows the gates for all departing flights. Find yours, then drop back into traffic to go the the correct terminal (let’s assume again it’s Terminal A). You drive under the entrance part of the Terminal to surface in the middle of a hexagonal building, with the part shown above being one of the six sides. The inside of the building has a ring road, a short-term car park in the middle, and a fairly large drop-off and taxi area going all along the building. Here, you’ll find doors with numbers above them – the gates! Walk through the one with the number of your gate.

And lo and behold, you’re facing your gate! There’s the check-in, there’s the bag drop, and right next to them is the entrance to security! Walking distance – at most 50 m! restrooms are close-by, too. Airlines have ticket offices along the other wall, so if you do not have a ticket yet you’ll need to walk around a bit. But at most that means once around the building, which is quickly done.

And that’s all there is! No marathon, no 1 million square feet of perfumeries to navigate through. No long queues for a central security check, stretching to the horizon. Instead, heaven in an airport!

As an added benefit – and this is a really huge thing for me, all the security people at TXL are good-humoured. All of them. I have never, not once, met someone with an attitude or being in a bad temper. In fact, they usually joke among themselves, and are always ready to joke with you. Partly, that’s Berlin, but partly that’s simply caused by the passengers being no-tired, not-foot-sore, and definitely not stressed out. If you constantly encounter people who are on edge, you can’t remain relaxed. If you only meet people who are relaxed themselves, you can do your job all day and still give everyone a heartfelt smile. That makes the most stressful part of flying rather relaxed.

Arriving at TXL

Getting out of an airport is usually slightly less taxing, tiring and annoying than getting in. Unless you have checked luggage. Then, they take you on another marathon tour – without shopping opportunities, which always surprises me – to get to the baggage claim area, and then on another, nearly as long trip to a door out of the secure area. And then another tour to get to the bus, train, taxi stand, shuttle bus stop or car park….. 120 km, or so it feels.

Not so in TXL! You arrive at a gate, get your luggage back right there, walk out, cross the corridor, and leave through the door you came in. Some 20 meters to the taxi or car park, a scant 200 m at most to the buses! OK, the long term car park is slightly farther off, but that distance pales in comparison to the usual March of Tears beteern gate and baggage claim alone.

Then, there is Terminals B, C and D. Tegel quickly became too small for the many passengers, and various building parts were adapted as additional terminals. In 2006, instead of building a second hexagon, a rather austere hall was thrown up, Terminal C. While the planned final version with two hexagons would certainly have been better, it would also have been much more expensive, and as the closure date had already been set for 2011 (originally), the cheaper solution was adapted. This terminal also has rather short distances, and although they try to guide you right into a duty free shop after security, there is a corridor bypassing it. Taxis stop right in front, and the car park is only 20 m away.

All in all, TXL is perfect if you want to travel by air, and horrible if you want to be forced to shop. And now, they’re taking it all away, in favour of a “modern airport” – i.e., a shopping mall with an insufficient fire alarm/safety system, half-built and way overpriced (some estimate that the added cost of the screw-ups will be as high as 500,000,000 EUR!), out in the middle of nowhere, and suitable as a training ground for the Olympics Walking Team “stamina” camp. Sigh!

At least, the delays give me another 9 months to enjoy TXL! This year, I’ll go to Teruel twice, and to the US once. That’s six – count them, six – times I can have a hassle-free, speedy airport experience! Yay!


P.S.: I’m sorry! This rant would have been so much better if Douglas Adams had written it. Alas, I lack all of his literary genius, 95% of his sarcasm, and 85% of his brilliance. Or more.

About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy
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9 Responses to An ode to TXL

  1. dmaas says:

    Agreed. Each trip via Tegel is about 30 minutes transit, while Schoenefeld and the new airport will take an hour. True appreciation of Tegel can only be had at Schoenefeld, btw… it’s downright touching watching the new infusions of otherwise intelligent people looking for clues as to how to buy train tickets, which track to go to, who might be able to help them, as there is no signage.

  2. One nitpick, though: Tegel can be difficult to navigate is when it is really busy and the queues extend into the hall (at a 90 degree angle to everyone else’s path). But those are slight pickings.

    And as a regular visitor of Schiphol (Amsterdam airport) I see your point. Schiphol is basically one terminal, so the walkways are LONG, and all personnel create their personal venn diagram out of disinterest/authoritarianism/arrogance.

    It’s not quite as bad as the utterly awful airports that are dotted across the UK, though. Most have the perfume shop as PART of the walkway to the gates, and will let you wait for an eternity in some nondescript space seated next to the fat f*ck (as in seat-overflowing) who insists on farting whilst loudly consuming his lukewarm hamburger. American airports are similar, but because of Americans’ openness to banter it’s much more bearable because you always end up chatting to someone.

    A strange one is Portela (LIsbon): objectively, everything is wrong with it, but it somehow works. Worst ones sofar: Brussels. slowest luggage handlers in the WORLD, impossible to orient and always missing the trains into town by a minute; and Sheremetyevo (Moscow): the Soviet Union lives on.

    • True, when Tegel is really full it gets almost as bad as other airports that are really full. Have you ever experienced the old, centralized security at FRA? On a busy day? OMG!!!!!

      Brussel’s reputation caused me to take a train there once, drive the second time. Given what you describe I’m glad I did 🙂

  3. 220mya says:

    I quite like the ambiance and available shops/services at Schiphol; its one of the more pleasant airports to have a layover in – afterall, it has its own art museum!

  4. Admittedly, TXL is not a fun place to have a long layover. Schipol may well be nice for such an occasion; I ran through it twice this year and it looked OK.

    • Marc Vincent says:

      I like Schiphol, which is fortunate as it’s become like a second home to me now. The café ‘Dakota’s’ on the panorama terrace is a favourite hangout for my girlfriend and I…or it was, before they jacked up the prices of the menu items. Boo!

      As for the staff…the usual Dutch mix of blunt honesty and rather dry humour.

      In the UK, I’ve only ever been from and to Gatwick, as it’s always been closest. The staff there are normally very pleasant. Heathrow sounds like a bloody nightmare.

  5. Pingback: Back home – and back to work! | dinosaurpalaeo

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