Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Vienna Airport is a Mess! (But Not for Long, I Expect)

When I arrived at the Vienna International Airport (VIE) in April, I was surprised to see signs directing me to march through the old baggage claim area to new baggage carousels several hundred yards away. Even more surprising, when I went through the doors from the baggage claim area to the arrival area, I recognized nothing: everything was new. The old Vienna arrival area had disappeared, replaced by a sparkling new building.

After some momentary confusion, and a quick look around, I noted that the new arrival area is curved and narrow, as was the old one, but it also has new stores and restaurants, a nifty new arrival board, better lighting, and improved access to the trains/trams that take travelers into the city.  I found out later that the new arrival area can be as congested as the old one was, but its amenities, including a Spar grocery store and an assortment on bakeries and places to eat, make it gemuetlich.

Here is the new arrival area. The nifty digital Arrivals Board makes
up a large portion of the wall toward which people are facing. 
Travelers exit the door on the right.  They are met by people who
stand outside, separated from the exit doors by a barrier.
Unfortunately, the sidewalks, roads, and parking lots outside the arrivals hall are a mess, resembling the tumult of a busy street in downtown Shanghai, with cars, buses, taxis, and pedestrians converging uneasily in a small area. Also, the outside walkway is saturated with cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes: not a nice welcome to Vienna. This area is not a place to linger.  Nevertheless, it has one improvement: new bus stalls with digital signs providing helpful information about the destination of each bus and its departure time.

Viewing the airport again a couple of weeks later, when returning for the flight out, I found that the construction underway at the airport makes access to the departure halls confusing.  Signs point the way to departure halls 3, 2, 1, and 1a.  Choose the correct one if you can. Hall 3 is not connected directly to halls 1, 1a, and 2. If you need to get from hall 3 to any of the other halls, you must leave the building and find an obscure entrance.

Departure hall 3 is new; it is the second floor above the new arrival area. This hall hosts Austrian Air and its partners. It has a new configuration in a sleek, clean high tech building.

Other airlines use the old halls in another building. To know where your airline is located, you need to find a directory of airlines that lists the building and counter numbers used by each one.  (These directories are posted near entrances.) Fortunately, the Sky Team airlines (Delta, Air France, KLM, and others) are located together in Building 1.  

As with Delta Airlines in major US airports (including Seattle), the Sky Team area has baggage drop-off counters for travelers who have checked in, either on-line or at kiosks in front of the Sky Team check-in booths, and want to check their bags. Unfortunately, this system did not work too well at the Vienna airport because many confused or malicious travelers, without boarding passes, used the baggage drop  counters as check-in lines. The time required to check in those travelers greatly slowed down the folks who had checked in and wanted simply to leave their bags.

Of course, most passengers without boarding passes would not get in the baggage line if some airline agents were around to assist them to use the kiosks to check in or to direct them to check-in counters. Surprisingly, I did not see a single Air France agent assisting in this way. (Because Delta does not operate in Vienna, and my Delta tickets were for Air France code-share flights, I cannot blame Delta directly for poor airport check-in operations).

With an early morning flight, I spent the night before my trip from the Vienna Airport at the NH Hotel (overpriced high-rise tourist hotel, with pretentions of being more), which is located in the airport complex. Last year, the NH was directly across from the arrival area. Now, it is a block up the street from the new arrival hall.

Staying at the NH, I had some time to look around the new parts of the airport and to figure out how I would get to the Air France check-in early the next morning. Without this rehearsal, I likely would likely have had a difficult time finding my way to the Air France counters at 5:00 a.m.
Looking around the airport, I noted that the old arrival hall is now mostly a hole in the ground, though sledge hammers were working throughout that afternoon to dismantle it.  The fencing around the old arrival hall construction site takes up a lane or two of the main road going to chief airport exit and entrance. Because many departing and arriving passengers have to cross this busy narrow street to get to and from parking decks (the airport has several of them), they slow or stop traffic on this crucial road.  At many times of the day, traffic on this road is congested.

Caffe Ritazza lies across the arrival hall from the doors
exiting the baggage area. The restaurant stretches over a long
area and has eclectic (at best) furnishings
Going to a restaurant in the arrival hall at about 7 pm on a Sunday night, I was astounded by the huge crowd that had assembled around the doors that passengers use to exit the baggage area. Large numbers of people milled around the narrow area between the curved barrier that sits a few feet from the exit door and the shops. Many in the crowd were drivers with signs bearing the names of a passenger they were supposed to meet. I didn’t envy them the task of identifying their passengers amid the throngs of people exiting baggage area.  Though the arrival area is new, it appears already to have a congestion problem at peak times. 

While the chaos was disconcerting, I did notice two nice things about the new arrival area.  It has better places to eat, and it has a new, well-marked passageway to the S-bahn and the express train going to the city. In the old arrival hall, it was difficult to find the S-bahn if you didn’t already know where it was.

One remarkable thing about the Vienna International Airport is its neighborhood. Within a short walk to the airport terminal are three high-rise office parks providing space for businesses that need quick access to the airport. Also, it has a multi-story building occupied by Austrian Air. Around the attractive office buildings, parking decks holding about 23,000 automobiles have been constructed. The area is also serviced by banks, restaurants, a grocery store, and some retail stores – all outside of, but a short distance to the airport.

Unlike airports in major American cities, the Vienna Airport is not only a transportation center, with easy access to the city by a regional train (S-bahn) and buses, it is also a business and economic development center. In a few years, the airport will have a link with the new Vienna Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station), and travelers arriving by air will be able to easily catch trains for trips to other Austrian cities and European countries. This new transportation dimension should make the business centers at the airport even more attractive to some firms dependent on air and train service.

Right now, the Vienna Airport is a mess, but the huge investment that Vienna and Austria are making to create modern transportation centers, and to surround them with high rise office buildings, will likely pay economic development dividends for the country long after the airport has been modernized for the coming century. I look forward to seeing the renovated airport when it is finished.

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