Frankfurt Flughafen—Airport of the Future?
By “Awake!” correspondent in West Germany
FOR nearly eight years it was “Europe’s largest construction site.” Prodigious amounts of earth were moved and concrete poured. Gradually there emerged the new Frankfurt Rhein-Main Airport.
Known as the hub of Europe, with about 5,000 weekly flights fanning out to the remotest parts of the earth, Frankfurt Rhein-Main Airport or Flughafen is one of the largest airports in the world. In Europe it ranks third, after London’s Heathrow and Paris’ Orly. In 1971 over 10 million passengers placed tremendous strain on the antiquated facilities then in use. So it was not without considerable relief that the new terminal, hailed by many as the prototype of efficient, modern airport design, opened in March 1972.
Advantages and Disadvantages
In many ways the gleaming new air terminal will probably make the traveler’s lot much easier. Instead of a sprawling, multiterminal complex, the new Frankfurt Flughafen is entirely under one roof. The central four-level, air-conditioned terminal is over half a kilometer long, or over 545 yards! So large is it that, when one is walking it it is not unusual to be passed by an airport employee on a bicycle. At some points “moving sidewalks” help passengers to cover the distances more rapidly.
This tremendous building accommodates the 220 airlines serving Frankfurt. From the terminal center, four long boarding piers extend like fingers from the hand. Clustered around these piers are the parking positions for the aircraft, so that passengers are able to enplane or deplane completely under shelter.
In addition to the technical support systems required to move aircraft safely in the air and on the ground, the airport offers many of the features of a moderate-size town. There are office buildings, a post office, police and fire departments, banks, bathing facilities, barber and beauty shops, conference rooms, chapels, a well-equipped hospital with X-ray and operating room, a supermarket, restaurants and shops of all kinds.
Access to the airport for those without autos has been significantly improved by the new nine-minute city-center-to-airport express train service. The train may be boarded inside the air terminal several levels below the street. However, reaching the train can be a formidable task when escalators are not functioning, which until now seems to be all too often.
For those who arrive at the airport by auto, there is a three-level underground largely automated garage connected to the terminal. It is built to house 6,000 autos. While it is easily accessible, motorists complain they are affected by noxious gases, despite the expensive ventilation apparatus.
Also, vast areas of this huge parking facility are isolated and unsupervised, contributing to the breaking and entering of autos and the committing of other crimes. In addition, the elevators for carrying motorists suffer their share of breakdowns, and alternate stairways are often dark because lights have been vandalized. So while the characteristic airport traffic-and-parking jams have been lessened, other drawbacks exist.
Long check-in lines are kept to a respectable minimum by use of more than 240 check-in counters. All are only a few feet from the terminal entrance to facilitate luggage handling, but, unfortunately, not eliminating it. Porters are still needed. Also, self-service baggage carts are provided by the airport, but by midday these have been scattered far and wide throughout the vast airport and there are too few readily available to serve departing passengers.
About 12 percent of the $300-million price tag for the airport (or $36 million) was spent to install over twenty miles of computerized conveyor belts designed to move a total of 13,000 suitcases an hour. Each suitcase is to be placed on a standardized pallet at the check-in counter. Every pallet is provided with a strip bearing the destination code number. This number is to be electronically “read” by 650 reading units located throughout the system.
Theoretically, then, the luggage-bearing pallets move through the system automatically, twisting and turning, crossing and recrossing, until they arrive at the final collection or delivery points. On the airport’s opening day a government dignitary was present to do the honor of pushing the button that was to activate the baggage system and send the first suitcase on its computerized way. This event was reported under the unmerciful scrutiny of nationwide television. The moment arrived. The button was pushed. But, much to the consternation and embarrassment of all, the suitcase went nowhere. The system did not work!
As of the date of this writing, six months later, the difficulty has yet to be corrected. No doubt the trouble will eventually be located and the system become operative. In the meantime, all baggage is dispatched by hand; a $36-million investment lies idle; and passengers still wait impatiently for their luggage!
Communication—Loud and Clear
In planning the airport, considerable attention was given to communicating directions and information clearly, simply and accurately. For one thing, a unique system of picture signs is used that is understandable (and sometimes amusing) to nearly everyone regardless of language or literacy. For example, the sign for the nursery is a baby’s bottle, and emergency exits are marked by signs showing a man running from a fire. The system is based on a series of signs developed for use at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
Flight arrival and departure information is posted on 216 excellent, automated, easy-to-read information boards throughout the terminal. In the departure halls, 120 flights can be posted simultaneously. A central data-processing unit operates the boards. These visual displays are appropriately supplemented by an audio system of 6,000 specially designed and strategically placed loudspeakers, which can easily be heard and understood.
Of course, the best audio-visual system in the world is of no comfort to passengers when it announces flight delays. Some delays are understandable—weather, maintenance, searches to prevent hijackings, and so forth. But recently flight operations were subjected to an air traffic controllers’ “slowdown” due to a labor dispute between the controllers and the German government. The airlines and indirectly the traveling public became the victims.
Technology and the Human Factor
It must be acknowledged that the Rhein-Main Flughafen is indeed new and, like all new structures and facilities, requires a breaking-in period. But it seems that this modern airport, which has much to recommend it, is having more than its share of teething troubles. And, instead of disappearing, the problems seem to increase.
What does emerge from the airport’s experience till now is that, high-flying hopes and plans and the sheer vastness of the project notwithstanding, technology is not and never will be the answer-all. It has its limitations and failures, just as do the 25,000 humans it will take to staff the new airport.
But whether Frankfurt Rhein-Main Flughafen is a success or a failure, or a little bit of both, we leave to the traveler to decide for himself when next he passes this way.