I have decided that Charles de Gaulle airport, outside of Paris, France, is one of the worst attempts at a functional person/airplane interface that I have yet seen. Given that I am from New York City, this is fairly damning. I arrived at this conclusion on the second trip through said airport, connecting from San Marco airport in Venice through to JFK in New York City. I had passed through on my way to Venice, coming from Boston Logan (BOS), several days before.

On landing at CDG the first time, I was tasked with connecting from one Air France flight to another, with 55 minutes to make the connection. Distrusting airline luggage handling immensely, I was carrying all my belongings in two carry-on bags. Upon disembarking from the Boeing 767 that had brought me to CDG, I was directed to a counter where an agent de Correspondance (transfer agent) awaited. I discovered that I had arrived in Hall 2C, and needed to reach Hall 2F.

CDG is built like a three-loop figure eight. TGV tracks bisect the airport along the long axis. The method of moving from Hall to Hall (each 1/2 loop, above and below the tracks, is a Hall) is to take a shuttle bus that travels around the outside of the terminals on a loop road, passing underneath the jetways. After a moment at passport control (the world is at peace, so I got through in five seconds) I moved downstairs to catch the shuttle bus.

The shuttle bus, natch, was delayed. I waited fifteen minutes to catch this necessary step in my transport. It took ten minutes to arrive at terminal 2F, for some reason. After leaving it, I dashed upstairs and made my flight...however, after having my ticket checked and walking out the gate, I found myself back on the ground level at another bus. We loaded into that bus and it took off. After fifteen minutes, it was actually paused under the gate where I had disembarked my international flight. Then it moved off again, this time onto the airfield where a few Air France medium jets waited. After a few moments, however, it stopped, and the man next to me mumbled "Ah, merde, Charles de Gaulle..."

When no explanation was forthcoming, I asked tentatively "Pardon, mais est-ce que nous sommes perdus?" Excuse me, but are we lost?

He laughed, and replied "Bah oui!" But of course!. From his and other folks' attitude, I gathered that CDG's buses were not to be trusted, even when they were the shuttles to the airplane. After a few fits and starts, we finally continued on, moving (it seemed) off the airfield, causing my neighbor to grumble that he'd never even seen this part of the airport. Turns out Air France had dumped us onto a charter; we made it, though.

On the way back through, I arrived at Hall 2F (E.U. flights), and needed to make it to (naturally) Hall 2C. After a walk of perhaps 1/2 kilometer through the terminal, we arrived at the inevitable shuttle bus stop, and waited. The shuttle only took 5 minutes to arrive and 5 minutes to make 2C this time (2C is the next stop on the loop from 2F; the first time we'd gone the long way around). However, once we made it into 2C's bowels, we found that we needed to pass through security. This is to be expected. In this case, though, there were perhaps four hundred people waiting to pass through, and only two gates at this station. I waited in that line for thirty minutes, while my flight's boarding was announced. Luckily, it was a 747-400, so boarding took a good long time, or there might have been problems.

Given that CDG is relatively modern, I would expect it to function better than this. Of course, I may just be expecting too much from the air travel industry.

I have also had the distinct pleasure of travelling through CDG as well. I was travelling from Pearson in Toronto to Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos (Nigeria) via Air France.

Before boarding my plane in Toronto, I was given a small folder labeled "Transfer at Paris-Charles de Gaulle", which was supposed to simplify my transfer to the Lagos flight at CDG.

My flight arrived at Hall 2B (i think) at CDG, somehow after wandering for 10 minutes, I managed to find the transfers desk, and my transfer agent informed me in mixed french and english that I was to board the transfer shuttle waiting just outside the door and get off at hall 2C, which meant that i had to travel all the way around the outside of the 3-loop figure eight, getting off at 2C, the next stop on the transfer shuttle would have been...you guessed it...Hall 2B. I waited for an hour at the assigned gate, and began to get a little worried as the boarding time approached, and no plane was waiting at the end of the boarding ramp. 5 minutes before the flight is to board, a funny looking bus drives up and lifts itself up to the boarding ramp on a funny-looking scissor-like jack. Apparently, we are to board the bus, and the bus drives out to the plane, waiting on the airfield somewhere. When we arrive at the plane, the bus does its acrobatic act again and lifts itself up to the entrance hatch.

The way back was much more fun. The plane from Lagos stopped somewhere out on the airfield, but this time we didn't get one of the funky lifting buses, instead we had to climb down boarding stairs in the cold december air (we had just come from a tropical climate, and a few people were wearing shorts and t-shirts), and get on a Renault shuttle bus to the terminal. The bus stopped at a nondescript unlabeled door outside 2F. Inside the door was a narrow hallway that curved around, went up an escalator, curved around again, and came to a set of closed locked doors. As the shuttle buses unloaded people, they walked into the door, down the narrow hallway, ascended the escalator, came to the locked door, and stopped. People below, at the bottom of the escalator, not aware that traffic was stopped up ahead, boarded the escalator like livestock, cramming more and more people into the tiny hallway at the top of the stairs. Finally, no more people were able to fit, and people began to fall down the escalator until someone with a brain pushed the emergency stop button.

L'aéroport de Roissy-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) is one of the two key airports in Paris, along with Orly Airport. It covers what were once four villages: Roissy, Mesnil-Amelot, Mauregard, and Tremblay. FedEx's facilities are built over an area that used to be a prostitution center, and the Air France terminal complex is built over what used to be a gypsum mine. While the runways were being built, construction crews discovered a Celtic tomb complete with chariots. But that was before the airport's time, of course: CDG opened in March of 1974.

Today, CDG is the eighth busiest airport in the world and the third busiest in Europe (only a smidgen behind Frankfurt), with 48 million passengers and 1.5 million tonnes of cargo moving through every year, two-thirds of Paris's air traffic.

There are two main terminal complexes at the airport. Terminal 1, which opened first, is a big circular concrete doohickey surrounded by seven satellite terminals. It is used by Aer Lingus, British Airways, bmi british midland, Northwest Airlines, South African Airways, United Airlines, and US Airways, along with other airlines.

Terminal 2, the "three-loop figure eight" that The Custodian speaks of, was originally used exclusively by Air France, but is now shared by a number of airlines, including Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, and Delta Air Lines. It is divided into five lettered halls from 2A to 2F, skipping 2E: the idea is modular design, and Aéroports de Paris can add up to five more halls to Terminal 2 if they need to in the future. The first of the halls was completed in 1981, and the most recent one opened in 1999. (Incidentally, this was the same strategy used at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.)

There's also a smaller Terminal 3 used by charter outfits.

Like most big airports, CDG is not without its stories. One fellow from Iran, Mehran Karemi Nasseri, was deported from France in 1988 for not having proper refugee papers, and he ended up living in the airport for over a decade, inspiring a film called Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Apparently, he's still living on the bottom floor of Terminal 1, having refused several offers from the French government because he wants to move to Britain.

If it weren't in France, I wouldn't mind living there, either. Paul Andreu's space-age design (same dude who gave us the Grande arche de la Défense) makes CDG one of the coolest-looking airports around, along with the similarly not-functional Kansai International Airport. U2 would agree: they shot their music video for "Beautiful Day" at de Gaulle.


I travelled through CDG for the first time in the summer of 2004. It was my first time in Paris. Predictably, a strike shut down the airport for half the day, so by the time we got there, it was also my shortest time in Paris. Not too long after that, one of the terminals collapsed. So maybe the place is cursed by Celtic ghosts. Who knows.

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