This is a tale of three airports.
YYZ. We Canadians love to hate Lester B. Pearson International Airport (AKA “Toronto Pearson International”, although it’s not technically in Toronto). Pearson is to us what Charles DeGaulle International is to the French, or Chicago’s O’Hare to Americans: crowded, busy, often understaffed, and just generally frustrating.
Pearson, with its two large terminals, is the biggest and busiest airport in Canada, and pre-Covid was the 11th busiest international passenger airport in the Americas and the 32nd busiest in the world, with over 75 airlines operating 1,250+ daily departures to more than 180 destinations across all six of the world’s inhabited continents. (Those numbers are slightly smaller now, but still pretty impressive.) That’s a LOT of flights, although there’s no doubt that much of the passenger traffic at Pearson is related to the fact that it is the largest airport in the world with facilities for United States border preclearance.
There was once a Terminal 2 at Pearson, but it was closed and demolished when number 1 was renovated and expanded back in 2007. Now there are just 2 terminals, numbered 1 and 3. Terminal 1 has 58 gates; Terminal 3 has another 46, for an airport total of 104.
By way of comparison, Germany’s Frankfurt am Main Airport has 103 gates, London Heathrow has 115, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has 195, and Amsterdam Schipol has 222. Not even Wikipedia seems to know how many gates the convoluted and frustrating Charles de Gaulle Airport has in its 3 (really 9) terminals, which seems like another good reason to avoid it.
Fun fact: Terminal 1 is home to the ThyssenKrupp Express Walkway, which according to Wikipedia is the world’s fastest moving walkway, at 12 km/hr (7.5 mph), which is 3 times average walking speed. I have to say that it has never seemed all that fast to me – I always thought it felt about the speed of an average escalator – but maybe time is relative in airports, because when I looked it up, escalators move at around 36 m (120ft) per minute, which is only 2 km/hr (1.2 mph) – only 1/6 of the speed of the walkway.
We flew with Icelandair out of Terminal 3, which is slightly smaller (by 12 gates) and slightly less busy than T1 (because U.S. flights all go through T1), less crowded, and thus far less hurried. That said, how we feel about airports in general changed once we were not flying with our own small children, and has changed even more significantly since retiring. We have nothing but time now, so for the most part lines and waits don’t stress us out.
Since we’re carless, we booked a shuttle for the just under 2 hour drive from Collingwood, planning to arrive far far earlier than the suggested 3 hours prior to an international flight and just relax at the airport watching planes take off. Our flight was scheduled for 9 p.m., but we spent almost all afternoon at the airport, with no reason to care how long the customs/inspection lines were. We had no checked luggage, so no reason to care either whether the airline desk was open for our extra-early arrival – the boarding passes we’d done online the night before were already on our phones.
Going through security on the Saturday afternoon of a combined Canadian and U.S. long weekend (July 1st is Canada Day, July 4th is U.S. Independence Day) could have been nightmarish, but there was absolutely no lineup when we got there, and three lanes open, so it took longer for our suitcases to be scanned than for us to be cleared. An excellent start!
Security checks done, I settled in at the gate to read one of Sara Paretsky’s V.I.Warshawski novels on my iPad (I started the series in the middle, so after finishing this one am going to re-start with the first book and work my way through them this summer), while Ted played games and got caught up on news. Pearson still requires everyone to be masked, but a significant proportion of people were blithely ignoring that – and there is certainly not enough airport staff available to police the policy. Aside from that, the low volume of passengers made distancing fairly easy and made getting around the airport a pleasure; it’s undoubtedly not great for airlines’ bottom lines, but it sure was nice for us.
Arriving so early also meant that there was lots of time for us to enjoy dinner at Caplansky’s Deli. We could have pre-ordered food for the flight, but a 9 p.m. departure seemed more conducive to sleeping than eating. Despite being in small Economy class seats, our (my) plan was to pop our earbuds in, listen to music, lean against each other, and nap for the first leg of our flight.
Sadly, as has been typical at Pearson lately, our flight was 30 minutes late taking off due to lack of sufficient ground crew on the tarmac. Fortunately, with a strong tailwind we were still able to arrive in Reykjavik on schedule.
KEF. Reykjavík–Keflavík Airport
It was around 6:30 a.m. Iceland time (2:30 a.m. Toronto time) when we landed in Reykjavik, with just 1 hour and 20 minutes to transfer to our connecting flight. The airport information indicated a 20 minute walk, plus up to another 15-20 minutes to get through passport control (Iceland is where we enter the Schengen Zone), meaning the plane should be actively boarding by the time we reach our gate. No time to spare, no stopping for food, but fortunately also no luggage to worry about except what is in our hands. Luckily, our seats near the front of the plane in Row 8 allowed us to exit fairly quickly.
The airport website offers nice clear pictorial instructions for transfers (below). The pictures are very comforting. The actual experience was less so. KEF also had staff shortages, which meant the passport control lines were jumbled, and packed into a very small space, which meant stressed passengers. “Fortunately” our flight was delayed by an hour waiting for passengers from a delayed U.S. flight. It was a lot of waiting, but very little stress.
Once the plane finally took off, we settled in for the 3-1/2 hour flight from Reykjavík to Berlin. Sadly, the small jet we took had even less leg room, leaving me not only feeling cramped, but with swollen ankles for the first time ever on a flight.
BER. Berlin Brandenburg Airport.
Berlin was once home to 3 international airports: Tempelhof, Tegel, and Schönefeld. They’re all gone. Now there is one: Berlin Brandenburg. Tempelhof, one of Europes three pre-WWII international airports, was closed in 2008. It had been extensively used as a military airport by the Nazis, and is now a museum and huge city park. Tegel closed in 2020, despite being Germany’s 4th busiest airport, when its air traffic was permanently rerouted to Berlin Brandenburg. Its grounds are due to be redeveloped into a new city quarter dedicated to scientific and industrial research. Schönefeld was also closed in 2020, with most of its infrastructure incorporated into BER’s Terminal 5, which operated until 2020 only as a transit station for local train, bus, and subway routes. In 2021, even those services moved to Terminals 1 and 2, with the exception of a couple of subway routes which bring folks to and from the Covid vaccination centre currently operating there. Prior to the reunification of Berlin, Schönefeld was East Berlin’s only civilian airport. It also had the dubious distinction of being ranked the worst airport in the world in 2017, after evaluation of 65,000 airport reviews.
I think I’m glad we landed where we did!
From BER we transferred directly to the S-Bahn (subway) Route S9 toward Spandau and rode for 47 minutes (15 stops) to Friedrichstrasse. This was just the first of what will be many times on public transit, using the special 9 Euro monthly pass (good on buses, subways, and local/regional trains all over Germany) that was recently introduced to encourage people out of cars and onto transit, as well as helping to decrease Germans’ dependence on Russian oil.
From the S-bahn station we had a slightly convoluted 20 minute walk to our apartment (should have been 10) due to the pedestrian bridge we wanted to use to cross the Spree River being closed for repairs, but we made it – climbing the 3 flights of stairs to our little central Berlin “Woh ung” (living space).
Arriving on a Sunday meant that shops, including grocery stores, were closed, so I made online reservations last week for dinner at Boulevard Friedrichstrasse, another 10 minute walk away. Although in Berlin terms it is one of the newer restaurants – only 26 years old – its menu offers traditional German dishes like Rinderrouladen and Sülze, things my parents used to make, so it seemed like a good choice for our first meal in Germany.
The first priority on arrival was cold beer: Berliner Kindl Jubiläum, a Pilsner brewed to celebrate that particular brewery’s 150th anniversary – newcomers by German beer standards.
Then it was on to curry wurst and fries as an appetizer , followed by the Deftiger Saftgulasch for Ted and the Pikante Sülze for me. Don’t judge – we hadn’t eaten in 18 hours, so this was “brunch”.
The food we ate tonight was delicious, but definitely not pretty, so we ate and thoroughly enjoyed but took no photos. I also enjoyed practicing my German with the charming wait staff! Anyway, there’ll almost certainly be food pictures to come in the next 3 months, … and after all, this post was intended to be about airports!