Wallpaper magazine has given the new airport terminal at Barajas an award for the best new airport. I went through the new terminal a few weeks ago and I agree that it’s the most beautiful airport I have ever seen.
However it is also one of the most dysfunctional and one of the worst experiences for a traveller. You have to walk literally for miles and you have no proper directions telling you where to go.
Let me tell you the story of my flight out of the new terminal a few weeks ago. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the airport was not busy. The taxi left me at the terminal, at the first available stopping space. When I got inside the terminal, I checked the displays and it turned out that I had to walk to the other end of the terminal to check in. (The displays were laid out in a very non-standard way.) That was a walk of about 500 meters (it’s easy to judge distance, because the terminal’s beautiful bamboo arches is held up on pillars which are spaced about ten metres from each other). When I checked in, about 70 minutes before the flight, the attendant wasn’t able to direct me to the exact gate, but was able to tell me that I needed to take the shuttle train to the other terminal. So I had to walk a further 300 meters or so to go through security and get to the three flights of escalators down to the basement of the airport, where I waited for the train. Along the way I had been able to find out my gate number from the screens, but there were no screens on the platform itself, which was extremely odd. The train ride is a couple of kilometres, and takes 5 or 8 minutes. When I arrived, I had to go back up a few flights of escalators and follow some confusing signs to my gate. There were shops along the way, but I didn’t even look at any of them because I had no idea how far I would have to walk to my gate. I started walking, rechecking the gate along the way. There were some travelators which made the walk a little easier, but the distance was around 400 metres. Unfortunately, when I got to my gate, the flight was going to Bahrain, not Dublin – I had misread the confusing display screens. So I had to make my way back about 200 meters to get my plane. The boarding area was a mess too. There weren’t enough seats to hold all the people who were supposed to be getting on the plane. There wasn’t any queuing system for boarding the plane. The boarding procedure was far too slow – the two staff on duty were only able to check documentation for around 10 people per minute, so it took too long to get people on board.
When I was on the plane, I heard a person sitting nearby say that they had left a bag behind at the security check and only remembered about it after they had boarded the shuttle train. They were unable to return to the security check to collect it in the time available.
The new Terminal 4 at Madrid is a triumph of sculpture, but architecture it ain’t. There is little thought about the airports function as a system, and still less for the unfortunate passengers who have to hike to their planes. As it stands, this building is only barely fit for the purpose for which it was built. It will come under serious strain as the number of passengers grows to 50,000 or 100,000 per day.
A lot of the problems can be remedied though. Decent signage, both fixed and electronic in the terminal and on the approach roads would mean that everyone would at least get to where they were supposed to be without having to backtrack. Relocating the security checks might help too.
Other problems will eventually call for serious reengineering. The arrangement of having the shuttle train stations in the basements is going to cause a lot of trouble as the terminal gets busier and might require a rethink.
The trend in the airline industry is to eliminate the check-in at the airport in favour of online check-in. If this happens, then the enormous check-in hall will be left largely unused and will have to be repurposed.
Despite all this, the new terminal is still a triumph. It is undoubtedly beautiful and is a pleasant place to be. But now the managers and designers of the airport need to go back and think about the experience of passengers in their wonderful creation. Then Madrid, even with its flaws will truly be one of the great airports of the planet.