When you fly to Europe from the West Coast, your choice of nonstop flights is rather limited. Outside of cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Frankfurt, you're usually forced to fly to a large hub airport and then change planes if you want to travel to another city. Such was the case when I flew to Barcelona for the recent GSMA World Congress. Since there are no nonstop flights to Barcelona from San Francisco, I had to fly to Munich first and then catch another flight from there. And all I can say is, I'm glad I did.
Munich's Franz Josef Strauss Airport is a prime example of how to run a busy hub. It's spacious and sparkling clean, the staff is polite, the buildings and facilities are new and high-tech, and (this being Germany) everything is prompt and efficient. The hofbrau restaurants and observation deck don't hurt, either. Both on my journey to Barcelona and my journey home, my flights were on time, and I had no problems navigating the relatively mammoth Lufthansa terminal. And even though I had only about an hour to spare each way, I still was able to pass through passport control and security and arrive at the gate before boarding started. This is exactly how an airport should be run, and when compared with the other European hub airports that I've used, Munich is my favorite.
Frankfurt would be a close second to Munich. It, too, is well-run, but its sprawling terminal seems to involve more walking. I've never changed planes at Amsterdam Schiphol, so I'm going to leave it out of this comparison, but Munich is far better then both London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle. You could fill a book with complaints that have been written about Heathrow, but as long as I'm not changing planes, I have to admit that I have a perverse attraction to the place. Maybe it's just that I have a thing for yellow signs, but Heathrow can be so chaotic that it's almost comical. The last time I passed through Heathrow on the way to Copenhagen, I marveled as a very un-British group struggled to stay in a massive queue. A very harried employee tried to keep everyone in line, but she was in over her head. Then in the security area, an employee turned on a very old ceiling fan positioned above the X-ray machine. When he did so, the cloud of dust that rained down on my bag was so thick that it looked like it was snowing. Add in the threadbare carpets, the soiled seating, the delays, the antiquated equipment, and the utterly appalling Terminal 3, and you have a real mess on your hands. But then again, you see the entire world at Heathrow, and with such a wide variety of airlines and aircraft, it warms an aviation buff's heart. But like I said, if I'm forced to be a transfer passenger at Heathrow, then the place is a zoo. Maybe things will get better with the new Terminal 5.
On the other hand, I have only disdain for Paris' airport. It's dirty, cramped, and horribly designed with much too few directional signs. What's more, the terminals collapse without warning, and and the food is terribly unrepresentative of the city it serves. But what really gets me about Charles de Gaulle (the airport, not the man) is the unbelievably rude employees who seem to be really angry at life. Yes, I know that the whole "the French are rude" thing is a stereotype, but in this case it's one stereotype that's deserved. And from what I've read from other travelers, I'm not the only one who thinks so. My point is this: if you're going to take a job in an airport that bills itself as a European hub for world travelers, don't give me attitude if I can't ask for directions to my gate in French. That's just wrong.
But these are just my experiences. If you feel differently, or even if you agree, I'd love to hear why.