For first-time visitors to Charles de Gaulle, it can be slightly disconcerting looking out of the window as you descend towards the airport to see another aircraft mirroring your approach.
Charles de Gaulle (CDG) International occupies a huge area, almost one-third the size of the city of Paris itself, which it serves 25km to its south, yet with four runways it has room to spare and can land planes simultaneously.
Earlier this year, CDG celebrated its 40th anniversary. It is the second-busiest airport in Europe, after Heathrow (with its two runways), and the eighth-busiest worldwide in terms of traffic, with 62 million passengers passing through in 2013.
The airport has room for expansion, however, with a capacity of 80 million, useful when annual traffic growth worldwide is expected to rise by about 3-5 per cent per annum over the next 20 years, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
On average, an aircraft takes off or lands at the airport every 30 seconds, with more than 180 airlines flying there and – according to the airport’s owner, Aéroports de Paris – up to 25,000 connection opportunities of less than two hours between medium- and long-haul flights every week, and a total of 315 cities served.
Charles de Gaulle isn’t the only Paris airport – there are several, including Paris Orly, which also receives international passenger flights – but it is CDG that hosts the global hub of Air France-KLM and is the principal European hub of the Skyteam alliance. FedEx and La Poste have their European hubs here, as do many of the principal players in the international freight segment.
Some 60 per cent of passengers are connecting, flying into the airport only to continue on to their eventual destination.
In recent years, Air France has worked with Aéroports de Paris to try to shorten transfers, smooth out security checks, provide more information and assistance, and generally make the airport a less forbidding place to change flights.
There has undoubtedly been progress, and yet it can still be a complicated process. To begin with, the nine terminals are Terminal 1, then Terminal 2A, 2B (closed for refurbishment), 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F, 2G and Terminal 3. In 2012 Air France opened a new Hall M in Terminal 2E, joining Hall K and Hall L as part of 2E (for non-Schengen international flights). These are termed “Halls”, not terminals, but Hall L is also referred to as Satellite 3, while Hall M is Satellite 4.
If this wasn’t confusing enough, for travellers transferring from short- to long-haul, Terminal 2F (for Schengen medium-haul flights) and Terminal 2G (for Schengen flights operated by Hop and Cityjet) are also ones you might encounter, along with 2E if you are arriving from the UK. Air France has a useful page on its website to help you understand your connection (tinyurl.com/c2k33d5).
Terminal 1 is home to Star Alliance member airlines, while Terminal 2 brings together carriers belonging to Oneworld (2A, B, C and D) and Skyteam (2E and F), with Skyteam-operated intercontinental flights making up more than 60 per cent of CDG’s traffic and more than 80 per cent in Terminal 2.
All of this sounds a little abstract until you land at the airport. Suddenly you are faced with giant boards filled with seemingly hundreds of departing flights, and directional arrows in both French and English pointing you to different parts of the building.
For leisure travellers, it’s an extra bit of stress. For business travellers, who often have a choice over their airline and routing, it can be a deal breaker.
Charles de Gaulle recognises this, and wants to attract business travellers, even having a special section on the Aéroports de Paris website promoting initiatives such as the Parafe programme (tinyurl.com/q2jvjds). This allows you to pass through border control with just your passport and fingerprints (like the e-passport gates at London Heathrow) and is available to European Union citizens, including those from the UK. (You need to pre-register.)
If you are a frequent flyer and have status with Skyteam, then you will no doubt be on the look-out for Sky Priority areas, where first class, business, Club 2000, Flying Blue, Elite Plus and other eligible members can take advantage of fast-track lines to go through security.
Having travelled through the airport twice recently, it’s clear to me that, as with many airport hubs, the minimum connection time (MCT) is something you might want to add padding to. At Charles de Gaulle, depending on route, security, the location of the terminals and the distance between them, it can be anything from 60 to 90 minutes, although the airport itself refuses to specify a MCT.
On one connection I made recently, I was even advised that it would be quicker for me to exit airside and go landside, then go through security again. If I hadn’t, I would have used a new tunnel from 2F to 2E (Hall K) that was completed two years ago.
For first class passengers with Air France (about 150 of them each day), there is the benefit of being escorted through the airport and transferred from the aircraft to the first class lounge by limousine.
The new Hall M in Terminal 2E contains a 3,000 sqm Air France business lounge with a buffet restaurant, work areas (and play zones for children) as well as floor-to-ceiling views of the airport.
The problem is that Hall M, accessed by an impressive electric train and home to top-class shops (Bulgari, Burberry, Cartier, Dior and Prada among them), is at the far end of the airport, and for cost reasons is only open between 5.30am and 2.30pm.
The airport has arranged for flights with potentially high-spending passengers to depart from there – to keep the retailers happy – but for the rest of the day Hall M, and its large lounge, remains closed.
Perhaps one day Hall M will be more integrated into CDG’s overall operation, but until then, its most impressive retail hall, along with Air France’s most modern and design-oriented lounge, is unseen by the majority of passengers.
This is the challenge that Charles de Gaulle is struggling to overcome – meeting 21st-century requirements with an airport planned and built in the 20th century. The addition of security, huge passenger numbers and myriad new airlines serving new traffic flows has meant the airport has kept expanding.
But this enviable size – and the capacity to become even larger – has to be made manageable and understandable to passengers, and every piece of new infrastructure has to be slotted in and around what already exists.
Charles de Gaulle is now also concentrating on the connections into Paris (to Gare de l’Est station) with its CDG Express construction project. Work is due to begin in 2017, and the line should be operational to the public in 2023.
Like most hubs, Charles de Gaulle is a work in progress, but at least the progress continues.
TEN THINGS A GOOD HUB NEEDS
- Wide choice of connections
- Realistic minimum connecting times
- Quick transport between terminals
- Clear signage
- Adequate lounges in appropriate locations
- Paid-for lounges for non-members
- Free wifi and plentiful power points
- Lots of places to sit
- Airside hotels/sleep pods
- Varied restaurants and bars
PARIS CHARLES DE GAULLE IN NUMBERS
- 2nd busiest airport in Europe
- 8th busiest worldwide
- 4 runways
- 9 passenger terminals
- 180 airlines
- 315 cities served
- 61.6 million passengers
- 3,257 hectare site
- Up to 25,000 connecting ?ights a week within two hours of passenger arrival
- 54.7% Air France traffic
- 6.5% Easyjet flights
- 2.8% Lufthansa flights
- 1.5% Delta flights
BUY & FLY
Business travellers have plenty of opportunities to spend their money while waiting for their flight:
- 391 shops, bars and restaurants
- Almost 50,000 sqm of retail space
- 600,000 Eiffel Tower souvenirs sold every year
- 1 million bottles of wine
- 400,000 bottles of champagne
- 400,000 cheeses
- 250,000 units of foie gras
- Luxury brands such as Dior, Gucci and Hermes, and gourmet food companies such as Laduree, Caviar House and Prunier