Skift Take

In Brussels' defense, it's no LaGuardia, Newark, or JFK. But then again, nobody expects anything from those airports.

This years SITA IT Conference was held in Brussels, the de facto capital of Europe, seat of the EU Commission and the Council of the EU, and a really lovely city. Except for the airport.

Originally an OK airport to get around, if a bit dated, two separate Piers (for Schengen and non Schengen passengers) jutting out of to the original terminal make it a very large and very oddly structured airport. Pier B (Non-Schengen) opened first in 1994 and Pier A (Schengen) followed in 2002.

Here are ten reasons to hate Brussels Airport–and one good reason to love it (it’s not chocolate):

1) M.C. Escher influenced the Architecture

Yes. MC Escher was Dutch–not Belgian–and he died in 1972, but he must have inspired the architects and city planners who incorporated the new Piers into the old Terminal. The process of getting around Brussels Airport is an experience akin to walking through Escher’s Ascending and Descending with elements of Relativity thrown in for good measure. Because of the way the separate buildings are connected, you have to go up and down and back up again (getting turned around each time).

There is a long underground walkway to get from the check-in area to the security area then onward to the gates. It’s long enough that you forget you haven’t been through security, by the time you get to it. There are subway-style gates which require you to scan your boarding pass to get to the walkway, so have your boarding pass ready. We’ve included a map, but it only helps to illustrate the Escher-like structure.

2) Qu’est-ce que se Way-Finding?

Anyone travelling through an airport for the first time is helped by adequate signage to find the way. This is especially important in Brussels Airport because of its–let’s call it unique–design. Brussels Airport understands this, so they have put up a lot of big signs. Many. So many that they can appear to contradict each other and become confusing. They are not always ideally located.

Because Brussels Airport has loads of traffic from lots of people headed in opposite directions, following the flow of passengers in front of you is nearly impossible and likely unwise. Factor in some time to get lost and found again. You’ll need it.

3) “A” is just a letter.

The Relativity part of the terminal design comes into play here. If you have an A-gate, you could have one to the right or the left or ahead. Just check the number carefully. You will be sorry if you have picked the wrong way. It’s a long walk in every direction. Parts of T are next to parts of A. Those two letters might not follow in any other alphabet but they do here. B is also split-up so B careful. Transfer between B and A/T is by bus.

4) Plenty of stairs and escalators, not so many elevators.

For persons with limited mobility, this airport might prove a challenge. Because it is absolutely necessary to go down and up and down and up again, you might need help. There were assistance cars driving passengers around the terminal, swerving to avoid the rush of on-coming passengers on foot, but overall this is not a very friendly airport for persons for persons who require special accommodations.

The airport states otherwise, but it recognizes there is a problem so it is building a connector to make getting from A to B easier, scheduled for completion by 2015. You can find their travel recommendations for reduced mobility and special assistance passengers at this link. Reservations for special assistance must be made “at least 48 hours in advance.”

5) But you love to shop!

Airports raise much-needed revenue by tempting passengers to spend. Brussels Airport is no exception. Actually, it is exceptionally good at this. You can buy practically anything at the Brussels Terminal, from the traditional Duty-Free fare to clothing and undies, handbags, luggage, electronics and toys, even diamonds and chocolate (both of which you’d expect to find in Brussels) and–just in case you need one–cars.

Well, the cars are not for sale, but they are on display blocking your path to get you inspired. These shops are located all over the place, tempting passengers to buy at every opportunity, which further complicates that Way-Finding issue in #2, and makes the interior of that M.C. Escher design in #1 even more a-maze-ing.

6) And of course you’re hungry and thirsty and would like to watch the World-Cup with strangers.

No worries! There are loads of places to eat and to drink, and they are very good–therefore crowded. Televisions were tuned to the games, everyone had a good time cheering their team. Loads of fun, except for passengers trying to get past the crowds to find the right sign which might hopefully lead them to their gate.

7) Electricity is expensive in Europe, and the EU is all about conservation.

You want to charge your what? You silly person! You should have planned ahead. Finding a place to charge up is a real challenge. You have two choices. One is to be sneaky and find the one plug located against the wall very near the short metal column which supports the glass exit barriers of each gate. Just be careful that no plane is due to arrive, or you will be in the way of passengers deplaning.

Of course, you can always get on the airport’s bikes. A charging station allows you to pedal your way back to a fully charged phone–or other electronic device. There is a queue for the bicycle stand. You’ll need to wait a while before taking a seat and using all that excess energy you have, after walking around the terminal maze, to recharge your battery. Or you can look for that hidden plug by the exit of each gate.

8) We give you free Wi-Fi, you give us your data

Technically, there is free Wi-Fi throughout the airport. Which is nice. You will have to watch a short video commercial which may not properly load on all electronic devices, in which case you’ll have to click on a link to do something else to get it to work. Also, you’ll need to give the portal all your details. It does not oblige you to receive promotions from the airport and the Wi-Fi supplier, but it does ask. You can trick the system, though, by pretending to fill it out, then backing out of that page and you get connected anyway. Not sure why that works, but it does. You get 30 minutes. Use them wisely.

9) The Evil Empire of the Drinks Dispensers–and more good reasons to visit our concessionaires.

If, after making your way through the maze to your gate, you find that you are parched or in need of a chocolate-covered Belgian waffle, you’re in luck. There are dispensing machines for sodas and water and snacks between the gates on either side. They only take Euro coins, no bills and no cards. The bills part is not uncommon but the cards part is odd.

Most everything in Europe can be paid with a chip-card now, and many European airports have dispensers which allow you to pay this way. Brussels doesn’t yet, so hold on to those Euro coins! There is a concessionary at the entrance to the gates, selling drinks and snacks which will take cards and bills so you can buy what you need. Yes, that’s more expensive, but if you don’t have coins it’s your next-best option.

10) Some of the toilet facilities are out of the way.

Not all, but especially at the main building. Some of the toilet facilities will require you to go down a long lonely passageway to get to them. This may not seem important, but it can feel uncomfortable to a woman travelling alone, especially when the only people you see coming in and out are men. Because there are signs everywhere you may also have difficulties finding the sign which pertains to the restroom. The restrooms near the gate areas are your best choice. Planning ahead at Brussels airport is important in every way.

One Good Reason to Love It

You’ll probably think it’s the abundance of chocolate, which is really very nice, but no. The best reason to love Brussels Airport is that it’s a very good place to lose your smartphone. Should you manage to mislay yours at the gate (while you’re all a dither after making your way around this gauntlet, and way too tired, and feeling less than top-shelf) Brussels is the perfect place.

The gate agents will be happy to stop what they’re doing and help you have a look. They’ll even find that smartphone for you, and not judge you in the least when you try to charge up in that sneaky little plug by the glass exit barriers. Because, at the end of the day, people make a place wonderful–regardless of the conditions. And the people at Brussels Airport–and Brussels–are just lovely.

It is somewhat ironic to locate a conference about improving the travel experience through effective use of technology, making navigating terminals easier, at a city which is arguably most in need of someone doing something about it. Then again–it’s ideal. It might have made attendees more aware of the big job still left to do. Hopefully, Brussels Airport was inspired by the proceedings.


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Tags: brussels, sita

Photo credit: Map of Brussels Airport.

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