A Frankfurt airport hell hole

The airport at Frankfurt, Germany, has a problem. What was once one of the most pleasant airports from which to make connections is a hell hole for passengers making connections to U.S. airline flights to the U.S.

Since the Christmas Day bomber struck, I have only flown to Europe twice, but have spoken with dozens of travelers who have run the gauntlet of security and boarding of flights to the U.S. on U.S. airlines. From my experience and other travelers’ tales, the picture isn’t pretty.

Heathrow has always been on my list of airports to avoid. Charles de Gaulle is difficult for connections. And now, I am adding Frankfurt as an airport to avoid for connections back to the United States.

My experience in Frankfurt, Germany, this past weekend may have been one of the worst boarding experiences I have had in four decades of flying. Worse, fellow travelers who have been flying in and out of Frankfurt noted that the experience hasn’t improved. My experience was not uniquely bad.

The unpleasantness comes from an unhelpful attitude of airport personnel and from a physical restriction of the airport design that has resulted in a holding pen of passengers that would do the old Chicago cattle yards proud.

I was treated by the airport personnel and Lufthansa lounge hostesses as if my questions were a bother. They simply refused to check their computers to answer a simple question about whether a plane’s departure had been delayed. Their repeated response was to point to my boarding pass and point to the departure time noted on the boarding pass.

Before boarding a connecting flight, I had picked up an email from my airline noting that the Frankfurt-to-U.S. flight would be delayed. One display at the Frankfurt airport showed my flight departing on schedule. A second larger display with more departures listed had no mention of my flight. Frankfurt airport personnel at gates, in the Senator lounge and at help desks inexplicably refused to check the status of the flight.

Defeated by their obstinacy I headed to boarding gate C7. If the less-than-helpful airport personnel attitude was Purgatory, the holding pens at the boarding gate was Hell.

There, all passengers — first class, business class and coach — were herded down a stopped escalator and parallel stairway to gates C7 and C8 where frustrated chaos reigned. Evidently the escalator was turned off because of the crowd in the holding room. The line snaked through back-and-forth stanchions up the stopped escalator and stairs to the corridor leading to this holding pen.

After a thorough secondary security screening, passengers shuffled from line to line with no idea of why they were waiting. A platoon of security personnel stood behind two barriers of laptop computers

Airport personnel, with no explanation, were randomly checking boarding passes of some in these lines and waving them to the front of the masses. Others checked passports over and over again asked repeatedly whether we had packed our own bag and whether we received gifts from unknown people. One set of boarding passes was traded with another set. All with no explanation.

As the room became more crowded and any semblance of lines and order disintegrated, there were no instructions, no signs and no one to ask for help. Both a USAir and American Airlines flight were boarding in the same holding pen, adding to the confusion. Eventually, final passport checks were made and security questions were asked by a platoon of security personnel.

Finally, in spite of a malfunctioning and distorted public address system, carrying announcements with a garbled foreign accent about the boarding process of the flight, passengers slowly climbed onto bus after bus to load the aircraft.

An airline seat never looked so good.