James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

In Transit: Barcelona‑El Prat Airport

In Transit: Barcelona‑El Prat Airport

One of the many perks of being an airline pilot is not having to live where you are based. Hitching a lift in a crew seat is one of the most time-honored benefits of the industry. Long ago I chose to leave my crew base in chilly Northern Europe for the much warmer (and tax-friendlier) climes of Northern Spain. It’s a lifestyle choice with a lot of upside, but one that entails spending a lot more time than anyone should in one particular place: Barcelona’s el Prat airport.

El Prat is actually two airports. The northern terminal (now Terminal 2), originally built in the 1940s, was expanded and refurbished in the 1980s to support the 1992 Olympic Games, and has basically been left to fester ever since, not unlike a great deal of Barcelona’s infrastructure. This dilapidated terminal is now home to low-cost airlines such as Norwegian and Easyjet, though not by the ubiquitous Vueling, the Iberia-owned budget king of Spain based in Barcelona.

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Hotel Barceló Raval

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Mercer Hotel Barcelona

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On the south side of the airport, opened in 1999, Terminal 1 is a cavernous ode to Catalan grandeur, designed by local architect extraordinaire Ricardo Bofill. Unlike the dungeonesque Terminal 2, high ceilings and huge windows let in plenty of light. Unfortunately, they also let in a lot of heat, which makes the summer months rough inside. Budget cuts por el crisis have lead to a paltry use of air conditioning, which when coupled with the crowds of the summer months can make it unusually hot and stuffy. I always used to scoff a bit when I saw passengers in shorts and flip flops, now I wish I could join them.

El Prat, like the city of Barcelona itself, is popular! So much so that it’s slowly being stretched to the breaking point. Forty-four million passengers used El prat last year, a 10 percent rise over the previous year, against a planned maximum capacity of 55 million. While the terminal may not feel overcrowded (at least not T1; T2 is a mosh pit), the continuous increase of flights has led to saturation of the runways and airspace around the airport. It is not uncommon for a line of 12-15 aircraft to be backed up at the departure runway, and a similar stack in the air in a holding pattern waiting their turn to start the arrival process. With only one takeoff and one landing runway, and no room to expand, delays are becoming depressingly normal.

Getting in
Whether flying in as a pilot or passenger, the best part of El Prat is landing. From the front seats you start a gradual descent over Perpignan, flying towards a radio beacon on the Costa Brava just past Girona. On the left side of the aircraft you get an aerial tour of Cadaques, Roses, and the later the seaside flesh-pits of Blanes and Lloret Del Mar. Over Calella you either make a right turn to line up on final approach, or a stressed air traffic controller barks instructions to establish in a holding pattern, at which point your view of the Costa Brava repeats itself.

Once cleared to join the final approach, you fly about 10 miles offshore, and views from the right side are spectacular. First Mataró, then Badalona, and finally the hot mess of Barcelona itself, the dun-colored city spilling down the mountain from Tibidabo to the old port. As the sail-shaped W hotel slides past, you are about 30 seconds from touchdown. Despite my fondness for the view of the Costa Brava, I’m a sucker for the aerial tour of the city.

Choose a seat on the right side—I always do when I’m a passenger. The prevailing wind pattern in Barcelona is westerly, which means about 80 percent of the time these instructions are valid. If the winds are easterly and your plane lands to the east, the views are still good, but forget the spectacular vista of the city.

Arriving from a European country in the Schengen passport free zone is a easy enough. In both terminals simply walk out to baggage claim… and wait. Baggage delivery is painfully slow, especially in the summer when the airport is bursting at the seams with extra flights. Free wifi (up to an hour) will help you pass the time. Switch email addresses and another hour is possible. Arriving on international flights, you passport control wait times are a crapshoot. Some days you sail right through, and others there can be a two-hour line, especially—as you’ve probably guessed—in the high summer season. The Guardia Civil running the passport checks can either be completely disinterested and not give a shit, or conduct a 21st century inquisition. Make sure you have your story straight about why you are coming and how you plan to pay for it.

If you need a SIM card, there is a Lebara booth in the arrivals hall next to the Caixa Bank, a Vodafone kiosk, and several “Crystal Media” shops both land and airside. In my experince, Lebara is the option with the least hassle—just pay, make sure phone and data actually work before leaving the kiosk, and then go.

Depending on where you are heading in town, there are several options for getting there. The fastest, easiest, and of course most expensive is the humble taxi. A well-marked and controlled rank processes the line quickly, and the cabs officially have to accept credit cards. There is a surcharge for leaving the airport and for each bag. To my home in the Gotic it is about €28-€30 including a small tip. Ignore touts in the airport offering “Uber taxi”, this will only lead at best to a light wallet and at worst to robbery. The controversy surrounding Uber in Barcelona is best left to another article, but at time of writing the service doesn’t exist.

A new metro line takes you from both terminals to the neighbourhoods of Sant Gervasi and Gracia. But if you are heading for the old city or Eixample, the best option of all is the €5.90 Aerobús to Plaças Espanya or Catalunya. Do yourself a favor and buy a ticket online. Have the ticket in hand or on your phone, skip the line for the not-always-functioning ticket machines, and don’t sweat the long queue to get on the bus. It moves quickly and a new bus pulls in as another leaves.

Departures
In the summer, unless flying to Madrid on the Iberia Air Bridge, give yourself at least 90 minutes to check in and clear security and passport control. If you can afford the air bridge, 20 minutes is plenty of time. Security normally moves very quickly, with the caveat that in the high summer, masses of travellers can overwhelm the system. At that point, its every man for himself. On the far right and left sides are fast track lines which are poorly controlled, so if you can pull off an “I belong here” air, you might be able to skip the line.

Departures in both terminals are split into two sides: Schengen and non-Schengen. In general, once you pass passport control into the non-Schengen side the dining and relaxing options are pitiful. Depending on the size of the passport control line, if you have time to burn it can be better to hang out on the Schengen side until closer to your flight time. The C gates tend to be underused, and it is possible to find a little but of quiet space at the end of the C pier to get your zen back away from the crowds.

Eating and Drinking
T1 has several overpriced tapas bars and several coffee shops selling €7 bocadillos de jamon and fairly crap ones at that. Monchos offers a fairly decent dose of paella or fideua to fill your your flight home, for about €20 a head with a glass of wine or a small beer. The only higher-end eatery is Gastrobar, and while I’ve never eaten there, everyone I know that has has felt quite underwhelmed.

The best-kept secret of BCN is to buy a beer (or two) and walk to the right side of the terminal, following the signs to Haagen Dazs. A glass door grants you access to a huge, underpopulated, outdoor area where you can get fresh air, sun, smoke if you need to, and enjoy your last Estrella al fresco. It’s a rare chance to truly feel free in the middle of air travel. Take advantage.

For the hungover, a McDonalds is on both sides of passport control, along with Pans & Co, the mediocre Spanish sandwich chain, where a bocadillo de tortilla and a plate of patatas bravas will set you back about €12. The better option is one of the two executive lounges, which allow travelers to pay a one-time fee to enter. If you have a long wait, 25€ is a small price to pay for unlimited booze and jamón, plus comfortable chairs and even a shower if you need to wash off last night’s debauchery.

Shopping
If you have saved your receipts to reclaim your sales tax (only when leaving the EU) a counter at the bottom of the post-security escalators will give you cash, in return for a reasonable commission. T1 has a huge duty-free shop, but unless you are paying with a corporate card, buy your Spanish food and wine in town: the prices here are insane. Strangely, the best deals—or at least the most normal prices—are in the the Westwood-like mall that they managed to shoehorn into Bofills’ design, featuring Zara, Mango and other mainstream Spanish shops, offering the same lines and prices as in town.

There is also a large luggage shop, for those inclined to buy a suitcase post-security. In all my years as a commercial pilot, I’ve never figured out who buys luggage in airport, but the place has been there for years, so someone must. The airport authorities have added shops right as you exit security to block your path to the gate in a effort to increase traffic. If you can’t be bothered and want to head to your gate, enter any shop except the duty free for a shortcut to your gate out the back door. Pretending to shop as you nonchalantly stroll through the store helps keep the assistants from giving you the evil eye. I personally always cut through the FC Barcelona store, as it is understaffed, underused and has nice wide aisles that you and your rollaboard can move through quickly and easily. Bon voyage, traveler, and remember to be kind to your flight attendants.

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