The worst airport in the world

3 min

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Passengers waiting to board their flight at Madrid’s Barajas Airport last July © Zuma Press/Eyevine

On an epic yet failed odyssey last week, I had a revelation. Sprinting for 40 minutes on disembarkation, through arrivals, along travelators, via a giant car park, to a bus, on a highway to another terminal and a new set of departures, on a further connecting train, through the duty-free shop and down an interminable corridor to discover that I had, sadly, and by two minutes, missed my next connection, I came to this conclusion. Madrid-Barajas is the Worst Airport in the World.

It wasn’t the fact that the separate terminals are about as handily located as planets in a solar system, so that in order to get from one to another in a timely fashion you need to break the speed of light. Nor that the social engineers who designed its mighty architecture conceived a winding pathway to ensure passengers are steered through every tiny dispensary and retail opportunity in order to direct you even further from your flight.

No, it was the lack of signage that completely mystified me. Not even in Spanish. There were no clues in sight. Travellers are presumably expected to intuit that Terminal “4S” is an appendage of Terminal 4 accessed via a secret train that can be located only through employing Spidey sense.

Flailing around, yelping at various people wearing tabards, I felt like Anneka Rice in Treasure Hunt, the ancient television game show in which she traversed the country using cryptic clues and local knowledge to find the winning spoils. At one point, just as in the TV show, I was joined by an enthusiastic staff member who jogged alongside me to demonstrate a faster route. Or at least that’s what he told me as we raced into an empty concrete car park in which I couldn’t see another soul. Whatever . . . he wore a lanyard and seemed to have an insider’s knowledge of the plot.

Everyone has their peeves when it comes to airports. British airports frustrate with their insistence that we use their prissy little plastic baggies to stack our toiletries, like some game of cosmetological Tetris where we must choose between deodorant or maintaining some semblance of follicular control. Anxious flyers take issue with airports with short runways — such as Courchevel — or perilous, such as Vágar in the Faroe Islands (which has the thrill of sitting on a cliff edge and being buffeted by high winds and heavy fog). Personally, I would gladly exchange the risk of danger when considering my options than have to pass through those US hangars where everything is staffed by a computer and the food looks like the undigested remnants one discovers in a corpse.

Commercial airports give the lie to the idea that there remains any glamour in modern travel. For most people, it’s just a sweaty, smelly schlep. (Actually, private airports aren’t much better — they’re just commercial airports with big white leather sofas and a better class of nut.) And yet the more unpleasant the journey is becoming, the more we try to get away.

This week, Ryanair reported its most profitable December quarter on record, pulling in some €211mn, and reiterated a profit forecast of between €1.325bn and €1.425bn in this financial year. The airline has rebounded from the pandemic, filling 93 per cent of seats. According to its chief executive Michael O’Leary, the cost of living crisis has only made people more determined to book that holiday. So determined, presumably, that passengers will waive the fact the airline is so grossly craven in its profit-hunting that they routinely charge a fee to choose a seat, in addition to the ticket we might foolishly assume would be sufficient to allow us to get on the plane. Yet Ryanair is only partly responsible for the culture of screwing passengers. From the bloated lounges and endless queueing to the missing luggage (the missing luggage!) and the costly extras, almost every single feature of the aeronautical experience is now a massive bore.

So why fly, say those who, mindful of the melting ice-caps, prefer to reach their destinations by unicycle or other worthy, less carbon-burning means? Here again, the experience is pretty dreadful: even Eurostar, once a portal to total chicness, has been reduced to a shabby simulacrum of its once fabulously lovely self. The enforcement of new border controls following Brexit has turned departures into a cattle station in which passengers are corralled in huge, amorphous queues. The trains, meanwhile, are packed to full capacity because they’ve had to scrap a load of services to allow the officers time to stamp the paperwork.

On the flip side, crappy travel expectations do make it all the more exciting when finally you reach somewhere in which everything just works. Having just been to Antwerp for a work trip, I’m considering revisiting for a holiday based on the ease of travel and calm in which we all arrived. And any chance to visit Copenhagen is one I’ll gladly seize. The airport is preposterously gigantic, but it’s jammed with obscenely attractive Scandinavians, serves tasty pastries at metre intervals and has an array of retail outlets in which to dawdle while you wait out your delays. Most significant, and magical of all, it boasts signage you could spot from Mars.

Email Jo at [email protected]

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Source: Financial Times

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