The Maze That Is Frankfurt Airport

If you’ve ever been to Frankfurt Airport (and not Hahn, the one Ryanair pretends is close enough to be associated with Frankfurt), then you know that it is one massive place. The terminals can be confusing to navigate, and there’s basically an entire city attached to the airport. When I was there on my Lufthansa A380 trip in May, I had the chance to explore a little. Since connecting in Frankfurt is pretty common these days with United’s tight partnership with Lufthansa, I thought it would be fun to explore the place a bit in a blog post.

Let’s start with a map (click to expand):

Frankfurt Airport Layout

It seems like Frankfurt should be a very easy airport. There are only two terminals today and they’re connected inside. The larger Terminal 1 is the domain of Lufthansa and its Star Alliance partners, Condor, and a few other minor stragglers while Terminal 2 is for everyone else. Seems pretty simple, right? Somehow, it doesn’t seem that easy when you’re on the inside.

Part of this is because the terminals are connected to public transit, high-speed rail, hotels, and shops in various places, so it gets to feel like a labyrinth. The good news is that if you get lost, you can survive in there for years without stepping foot outside. There’s even a supermarket down there, though it took us several wrong turns before we found it.

The two terminals are divided into five zones with A, B, and C in Terminal 1 and D and E in Terminal 2. I didn’t find it difficult to follow the signs for departure, but have your walking shoes on. When we departed from the high C gates, it was a trek to get out there. I will say that at least security is pleasant. The people were friendly and efficient. I particularly liked the contraption that automatically sends bins back to the beginning of the belt, so you don’t have to wait from an agent to slowly lug them over.

The Awesome Departure Flip Board

But before you get to security, make sure to stop and marvel at the enormous Solari boards. Frankfurt still has the old school departure boards that shuffle the letters and numbers as they update. There is nothing that screams “travel” more than those boards, and the content is pretty awe-inspiring as well with some very exotic destinations posted.

There are currently a handful of gates that can handle large A380-sized airplanes, and those gates are excellent. The ground level has a normal boarding lounge, but then there is an upstairs lounge that serves premium passengers. Each lounge serves two gates and boarding goes directly from the lounge to the airplane. It’s a great way to go.

Gate Boarding Area From Lounge

Of course, one of the downsides about Frankfurt is that there are a lot of bus gates, so you may have to be shuttled out to the airplane.

Arrivals were somewhat more confusing for me. When we landed, we were on the same high C gates and had to walk for ages. But when we through customs, I was lost. I kept looking for the Lufthansa arrivals lounge but wasn’t sure I was going the right way. At one point, I had to briefly walk outside and cross over a small road to get back into the terminal where the lounge was.

Lufthansa Arrival Lounge Area

The lounge itself was very nice with a great, refreshing shower, though I do have to say that I like the shower BA had at Heathrow better. Still, I highly recommend using the facilities if you’re in a premium cabin on the airline.

From there, you’ll see Frankfurt Airport’s greatest strengths. It is deeply connected into the transportation network of Europe. There are frequent local trains into the city and the airport’s close proximity means it’s a very fast ride. On top of that, the airport has a high speed rail stop that’s so efficient that some nearby cities don’t even have air service anymore. If you want to go the 100 miles to Cologne, for instance, then Lufthansa codeshares with high speed rail to get you straight there. If that’s not enough, the airport sits at the intersection of two major autobahn arteries which makes driving easy. I can only wish more US airports were this connected into a multi-modal network.

The high speed train station is actually forming the base of a monster new “airport city” they call The Squaire. This thing has shopping, office, living, hotels, etc and seems to be slowly opening in phases. The Hilton that’s opening there accompanies the Sheraton which is also attached to the airport. Lufthansa put us up at the Sheraton and it was a nice place, though the hotel itself is monstrously large.

The airport has been on a building spree as of late, and that doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Frankfurt will be opening its fourth runway later this year and eventually that will boost capacity by around 20 operations per hour. (For those of you who live in the UK, building a new runway is what happens when your government isn’t short-sighted.) This will help handle expected growth that will start to be served when the new extension to the A concourse is finished down the line.

The runway configuration at the airport is actually quite interesting. There are two main parallel runways that see the bulk of the traffic at the airport, but then there is another perpendicular runway that is used only for departures to the south. You can see it at the bottom left side of the map above. Why is it only used for departures? I imagine it’s because arrivals on that runway would interrupt operations on the other runways. (There are also some mountains to the north that might be of concern.)

The new runway will be for arrivals only, balancing out the number of runways that can be used for departures and arrivals.

In the long term, development will be on the south side. Until just a few years ago, the entire south side of the airport was the Rhein-Main US Air Force Base. When that was shut, the airport got the land and it is working on developing plans for a new massive Terminal 3. Lufthansa’s A380 hangar is already there on the south side, but there will be a lot more as this place continues to grow bigger and bigger.

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