3 Oct 2007

Flying to Zürich is always a culture shock

filed under: journal  :: swiss life  :: travel

In this Op-Ed article in the NY Times, Thomas Friedman says, among other things:

Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.

That made me laugh. Flying back to Zürich-Kloten airport from most everywhere, but especially the U.S., is always a visceral shock. "Ultramodern" doesn't adequately describe it.

Design-wise Kloten doesn't scream "modern" at you. It's more in how things actually function. (The airport has had a major facelift recently.) The main thing I notice is how smoothly it flows. The gates are logically placed around a central hub, so you don't have a major walk or monorail ride as you do in many other airports. Neither do you have clogging points where people can pile up, as you do at Gatwick for example. From getting off the plane to getting to baggage claim is almost disturbingly fast.

The place is also built solidly and expensively. Surfaces are clad in polished granite, not cheap metal and plastic. Getting off a plane onto solid ground is always a relief, but it's even more so when you get off at Kloten. It feels like landing on an unmovable rock.

Oh yes, there's also the speed of passport and customs checks, though that has less to do with the airport itself and more to do with attitudes towards such things. With a US, EU, Japanese or many other passports the immigration officials barely give a glance, and never stamp anything. And customs actually operates on a sort of honor system - if you say you have nothing to declare you can exit straight through. (In practice if you have cardboard boxes or a lot of obvious shopping loot they may ask you to stop.)

And, the baggage carts! After years of using them they still amaze me. First off they are free. They are solidly built. They are designed to secure your bags on it. And, they climb up and down escalators securely. When I use the flimsy carts that they make you pay a dollar fifty or something for at JFK, it makes me cry.

If you need to, you can pick up dinner at a real supermarket, not an overpriced fake airport version, right there (Migros or Marinello). There's a post office, a train ticket office with English speaking people where you can buy tickets to the rest of Europe, currency exchange from real banks, ATMs, and more.

Of course, you want to get home or to your hotel as fast as possible. Not a problem - parking is easily accessible if you have a car, the taxi stand is right there, and above all the train station is right there too. From there you can go into Zürich and take a tram or commuter train, or even take a train directly to other major Swiss cities.

I'm not sure if airports are representative of the state of a nation, but Kloten certainly doesn't hurt Switzerland's image. On the other hand, the airports I've had the pleasure of flying into in the U.S. in the past few years....and I'm not even talking about the whole surreal immigration-interrogation process. It makes me really sad.

(Someone who was obviously not impressed by Switzerland in general did say to me once that the whole efficiency thing was annoying boring. I guess that's one way of looking at things like trains that are on time and airports that work.)

Comments on this post:

Are the baggage carts like those at NRT?

Those escalator descending baggage carts at NRT scare the wits out of me. You have hundreds of pounds of baggage on them and you just can't quite believe the cart won't crash down and kill the people below you on the escalator. It's worse when you're the person below!

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