Zürich Airport is Switzerland's biggest international airport, also sometimes known as "Kloten" after the small city near which the airport lies. (As a side note, no one is too sure where the name "Kloten" itself comes from, though it may possibly be derived from the title of the Roman XI. Legion, "Claudia Pia Fidelis", which was stationed here in Imperial times.)

A little history

Kloten / Zürich was not always the country's principal airport. The original one was located outside Dübendorf, the fourth largest city in Canton Zürich: it was Switzerland's first airport of any real size, and is considered the birthplace of Swiss civil and military aviation. Dübendorf is now a military airport, a combined military/civil air traffic control center, and the site of at least two aviation museums, including the Swiss Air Force Museum.

In the mid 1940's it had already become apparent that the Zürich area, and Switzerland as a whole, needed a larger international airport than Dübendorf. In February of 1945, the Bundesrat (the Swiss national assembly or parliament) approved a plan for the building of four new intracontinental airport facilities -- at Basel, Geneva, Zürich and Bern -- and also determined that a new intercontinental airport should be built at Zürich on the site of a former Swiss Army artillery facility at Kloten. Accordingly, work was begun in July of 1946, and the new Zürich airport opened its first runway, 1900 meters long, on June 14, 1948. The airport served more than 112,000 passengers in that first year.

In the late 1950s it was proposed to lengthen the first runway and add a second one, as well as to make improvements and extensions to the single terminal building. In 1957 this initiative was voted on and passed by the people of Zürich, and work went ahead. In 1970 a third runway was added, along with a second "jetwayed" terminal, Terminal B. Terminal A had jetways added during a further expansion in 1981: at this time the underground train station was also built.

Unique Airport Group (a private "descendant" of the public/private companies which have run the airport over the years) took over operations at ZRH in 2000, and set into motion an ambitious plan for yet another expansion. At this writing (winter of 2003) the airport is just about in the middle of the process of adding a large airside terminal (the "Dock Midfield"), a new, much larger train station check-in area to be completed in 2003, an expanded food hall area for Terminal B, and an airside shopping area which, when completed in 2004, will be one of the largest shopping malls in Switzerland. (This is a fascinating prospect, since the Swiss seem to really like big shopping centers: the one under the main train station in Zürich deserves a node all its own.) The growth is seriously welcome: the present airport is no longer suited to the traffic it's experiencing (21 million passengers in 2001, with 310,000 aircraft "movements" during that period).

The need for expansion aside, Zürich airport has for years managed to be both effective and pleasant to use, due to the intelligent way its space is managed. Though it spreads out, it somehow doesn't seem to spread out as much as some other airports, or to take as much time to get around in.

Here's a walkthrough.

Flying In

If you're flying on Swiss (aka Swiss Air Lines, formerly Swissair) or one of its partners (American Airlines is one: others are being added to replace the old Qualiflyer group), you'll be arriving in Terminal A: if flying on another airline, probably you'll arrive in Terminal B (though sometimes scheduling or gate changes mean you wind up in A instead). Both terminals' arrival areas funnel into the same passport control area, one with a handsome waterfall on its right-hand side (recently redone so that it doesn't have brand-name product-placement plaques of various big companies sticking out of it: a great improvement). The passport control desks are divided into three categories: Swiss passports, Swiss and European Union/EU passports, and "all others".

Once through passport control, you walk into the baggage claim area (or if arriving from terminal B, you may walk along an elevated walkway and go down into baggage claim via a flight of stairs). Here you'll find about ten large baggage carousels -- video screens hanging from the ceiling near the place where you enter will tell you which carousel your flight is using -- and row upon row of the magical Swiss airport baggage carts. These carts can go on the escalators: their wheels lock onto the escalator steps. (It always looks a little strange, the first time you see this done, and it's a little scary the first time you try it: my advice is to hang onto the handle of the cart, the first few times, until you're sure you've got the hang of the "locking maneuver"...sometimes a cart will slip a little, terrifying everybody. If you're nervous about this business, don't worry...so are a lot of other people. Just use the nearby elevator.)

The baggage area also has rest rooms, an entrance to one of the Swiss "Allegra" business-class lounges, and the "back windows" of a small bank branch where you can change money for Swiss francs. Additionally, the walls opposite the entry from passport control are of glass, so any people waiting for you will have a chance to spot you. Once you've got your baggage, you proceed to the middle of the long baggage claim area and make for the green / red channels of the Customs area. Use green if you have nothing to declare, red if you do.

Once you're out of Customs into the main arrival area, if you have no one waiting for you and simply want to get to Zürich or somewhere further afield, you'll probably want to go downstairs to the train station of the SBB, the Swiss National Railways. (Unless you first need a cash machine, or unless the bank windows inside baggage claim were closed for some reason. Cash machine and bank windows open until about 10 PM will be on your immediate left.) For the train station, look to your left, as you exit Customs, and check the ceiling for the blue-and-white illuminated cube-shaped sign that shows a symbol of a modern train locomotive with pantograph. (It also says "Bahn", meaning "trains/train system".) Beneath this sign is an escalator. Take this downstairs (or take the nearby elevator).

Downstairs you're faced with sliding glass doors. Through these are a passageway that gives access to Zürich Airport's business and meetings center, the underground / indoor parking areas, and a left luggage facility. Go straight forward and then hang a right (usually past a busking harpist or flautist). You'll pass through another set of sliding glass doors and find yourself in the train station's upper shopping area.

Here you'll find:

In front of the sportswear store (which is the first thing you pass on your right-hand side as you enter this area), you'll see another blue illuminated "Bahn" / locomotive sign hanging from the ceiling, over the escalator down to the next level, the main SBB station level. Take this downstairs.

Here you'll find:

  • Immediately on your left: an Italian restaurant ("Binario Uno", Italian for "Track One"), with a wood-burning pizza oven and good pasta. (There are something like fifteen restaurants and cafes scattered through the airport. Some of them are very good. At least one of them is, apparently, a Starbucks. Don't ask me where it is.)
  • Immediately to your right: public toilets
  • Directly in front of you: a large bookstore / newsagent / gift shop, and past this a semi-enclosed area with phones and phone books
  • Further ahead, to your left: yet another Marinello grocery store, only a little smaller than the one upstairs
  • Much further up to your left, a little bar (being refurbished at the moment: hardly more than a stall)
  • Further ahead to your right: the SBB windows, comprising:
    • Windows where multilingual staff will sell you a train ticket, domestic or international
    • A bureau de change / currency exchange window where you can change money or get a cash advance.
    • (Afterthought: there really must be a cash machine down here somewhere, but I haven't looked for one. I'll check it out in the next couple of weeks.)
  • Automated long-range ticket machines that will sell you a ticket to anywhere in Switzerland. The machines have touch screens and "speak" French, German, Italian and English. (The machines are about five feet tall and mostly orange-colored. Some of them only take credit cards, and will want a PIN number: look for a brand on the machine that says "Nur Karten", "only cards". Other machines will take credit cards, debit cards, and cash, both coins and bills.)
  • Automated short-range "commuter" ticket machines which will sell you a ticket for travel within the greater Zürich area on the VBZ, the Zurich area public transport network. (If you only want to go to the main Zürich train station, march up to one of these, punch in the digits 8-0-0-0 -- the postcode for central Zürich -- and push the green "go" button beside the keypad. (There are instructions posted on the machine to help you make further distinctions regarding your ticket -- you can select first or second class or buy a "day card" for the Zürich area, for example.) These machines are about seven feet tall and mostly silver-colored. When you've punched in the code and a ticket price appears, the machine opens a coin slot for you: it also takes bills.
  • An SBB travel center where multilingual staff will help you buy anything from a single train ticket to an entire international vacation. There is also a smaller office in the travel center for Swiss and other/international concert tickets, a sort of variant of the US Ticketron.)

Right down at the end of this area is a left luggage facility where you can either store your luggage or (at the desks to your right) "check it ahead" to a Swiss destination to which you already have a train ticket. This may sound scary to a non-European, but in fifteen years of using this service, they've never lost anything of mine, and thousands of Swiss people use it every day for their own stuff: if the system didn't work, it wouldn't still be here. If you've got more stuff than you want to carry yourself, why not send it ahead of you? It costs about 10 francs per piece, sure, but if those pieces are heavy... The left luggage area looks like a blank orange wall, but just go up to it and look for the black button on the wall: push it and a bell will ring, bringing someone to open the wall (it slides aside) and help you. The check-it-ahead desks may also seem unstaffed when you come to them: go to the one nearest the left-luggage area and you'll see a bell on it. Ring this and someone will (most likely) pop out to assist you from a door behind you and to the right.

In the middle of this large area, past the ticket windows, you'll see yet another pair of escalators leading down to the train platforms. On the left wall (as you face down toward the end of this area) is a board showing arriving and departing flights: over each escalator hangs a small annunciator board showing when each train is scheduled to leave. One note about this, if you've never been to Switzerland before: as regards departure times, they mean that that's when the train will really leave. This is a country where public transport has been developed to a high art, and buses, trains, lake steamers, trams and private railways operate to a very tightly coordinated and interlocked timetable This is a place where train staff will often apologize over the loudspeakers for a train that leaves only a minute after its scheduled time....so expect no mercy if you're running for a train that's about to depart: they won't tarry for you. It's smartest to be a few minutes early! While you're in the airport SBB station, take a moment to look up at one of the handsome, minimalist Bauhaus-design clocks, and synchronize your watch. This time is derived from the atomic clock at one of the Zürich universities, ETZ, and will stand you in good stead all over the SBB network and all over the country.

...That said, if you're only going to the main station in Zürich (Zürich Hauptbahnhof, abbreviated "Zürich HB"), the trains run very frequently between 5 AM and midnight -- something like every fifteen to twenty minutes -- so there's no need to panic if you've missed one, unless it's pretty late in the day. (The last train leaves the airport SBB station at ten past midnight. Which makes sense, since no flights arrive or depart from ZRH between about eleven PM and 5:30 AM.) If you've missed a train, stand up at the little bar by the escalators (the bar is just sort of a stall at the moment, because of the ongoing refurbishment) and have a coffee or a beer or a glass of wine while you wait for the next train.... Also note that some of these trains go directly to Zürich HB: some make a stop or two at one or more of the local stations, like Zürich-Oerlikon. This merely means the trip will take fourteen or fifteen minutes, instead of eleven or twelve. As long as the annunciator board above your train clearly specifies 'Zürich HB" as one destination, you'll be fine.

Once you've identified your train (you can clearly hear them pulling in, and there are loudspeaker announcements from the platform level as well), descend to the platform level, get your stuff onto the train, and then dump your baggage cart (if you have one) at the platform cart rank. And have fun in Zuri HB. (Or elsewhere. Direct trains to all major cities in Switzerland operate from the airport, though nowhere near as frequently as the trains to Zürich HB.)

(A note for carry-on luggage fans: my best time so far from aircraft-wheels-down to train-wheels-rolling, admitting a perfect connection and no stops for anything extraneous straight through, has been twenty-four minutes.)

Another note, if you're waiting a bit for your train, or waiting for some reason elsewhere in the airport: The lounges and departures areas in Zürich Airport have been enabled for 802.11 wireless networking by a company called Monzoon. The company is apparently working to eventually make the whole airport "hot", and for all I know this may even include the train station...so if you have a wireless-enabled laptop, wherever you are in the airport, you might want to pop it open and see if you're anywhere near a hotspot. Monzoon offers both on-the-spot credit card subscriptions in two-hour slices, and "scratch card" access -- you can order two-hour or one-day scratchcards from them over the phone, for use in a single location or multiple locations.)

Flying Out

Zürich Airport is easy to get to from Zürich, by the method you've just seen described (but in reverse) and from other parts of the country -- typical would be the nonstop, high-speed trains from Basel which do the run from Basel SBB to Zürich Airport in an hour and ten minutes: the so-called "FlugZug", or "Plane Train". There are also enough local commuter trains and regional and private buses that it's hard to understand why anyone would go to the airport in a car. (Though of course some people do, and there's good freeway/motorway access and plenty of parking.)

If you're flying out, you may want to consider dealing with your baggage check-in long before you get near the airport...not a bad idea, since the lines / queues at the main check-in desks at ZRH can be horrendous, especially during peak travel periods. Nearly every major train station in Switzerland can now handle "Fluggepäck / FlyLuggage" for you if you're flying Swiss or one of its parners. This means you check in for your flight at the train station, check your bags there, and are given your boarding pass, so that all you have to do when you get to the airport is go straight to your gate. This service costs 20 francs. (More, if you have a lot of luggage. There's also an opportunity to self-check in at the airport if you have only hand baggage or one piece of checked baggage.) You can use the Fluggepäck service starting 24 hours before your flight. The latest you can usually use it is about six hours before your flight: this varies from train station to train station. Check with the local station in advance.

For the moment, let's assume you haven't availed yourself of this service. So you pile onto your train and head for Zürich Airport. (Check your train schedule to make sure you don't have to change trains at Zürich HB. About eight out of ten airport trains do. The change isn't horrible -- usually it takes about three minutes -- but why make it if you don't have to?)

Once you get to the airport, get yourself and your bags off the train, find a cart (there are always plenty) and head upstairs, retracing the route spelled out in the earlier part of this writeup.

(An update-note: starting March 27, 2003, a new check-in facility for users arriving on the train will be opening up on the railway station level. This is a large semi-circular area with about twenty airport check-in desks; it should take a great deal of strain off the main check-in facility upstairs.)

At present, though, you need to pay a little more attention from this point on, since the departures route is a little more distinctive than the arrivals one. Departures on Swiss and its partner airlines, from terminal A, tend to be quicker. (But they can still get really clogged at busy times, which is another great reason to do your checkin at your departure train station if you can.) You retrace your path up through the airport shopping center levels and head back for those sliding glass doors. Make your way past the flautist or harpist, hang a left, and make for the second set of glass doors. Just to your left, ahead of you, is the escalator by which you came down from arrivals. Ignore it. Right in front of you is the Swiss self-check-in facility. If you're flying Swiss on an e-ticket or have a paper ticket with a magnetic stripe, and you have only one check-in bag, or one piece of carry-on, stick your ticket or the credit card with which you purchased you e-ticket into one of the machines. You can do seat selection here, and the machine will print you out your boarding pass and a sticky tag-strip for your bag. Tag the luggage and then take it upstairs via the escalator to the drop-off spot indicated on the sign beside the presently non-operative baggage conveyor belt. (Don't ask me why this isn't working. I assume it's some security thing.)

...Or else go up the bank of escalators past the self check-in area and to your right, and (when you come out at the top) find yourself between two long, long lines of check-in desks. Choose the one that suits your airline, and get yourself checked in.

Once you've done this, you can regale yourself with what lies between those two long, long lines of desks:

  • A newsagent / bookstore / giftshop / travel stuff store.
  • A bank to change your currency from francs to whatever. (I'd wait until I got home, myself: the rate is usually better, assuming you're changing back to your home currency.)
  • A bakery and chocolate shop. A really GOOD bakery and chocolate shop. Pick up some great bread to take home, or a torte to die for, or or or... (You can call or fax them to have a bag of goodies ready for you to take away.)
  • A luggage shop specializing in Tumi and other high-end luggage.
  • A drugstore / chemist.
  • A bar.
  • A "vaguely Continental" restaurant.
  • A Japanese restaurant. A good one! You can call, fax or e-mail them to prepare a bento box or other box 'o' treats for you to take on the plane.)
  • And there may be something else down there, but myself I usually find most of my attention fixed on the bakery.

And then you come to passport control. Right now this whole area is a mess -- a very tidy mess, Swiss-style -- as it's being rebuilt. Pass through passport control here, and you find yourself looking down a long, long corridor of gates and duty-free shops. (Another group of "A" gates lies beneath you: look to the left and you'll see the escalators.) All the great names are represented here -- Bally, Hermès, you name it. There are a couple of small bars down this long corridor. The gates from this level are all jetwayed. An angle-off-to-one-side leads you through security to another group of A-gates and a separate lounge with more duty-free facilities, a small Internet area (you pay by credit card or coins) and a snack bar: from here you go downstairs to a secondary gating area from which you must be bussed to your plane. (Just about all the airport buses seem to have signs inside them with pictures of cartoon buses thinking, "When I grow up, I'm going to be a jetway!" -- and thanking bus-riding passengers for their patience.)

Departures from Terminal B (meaning all airlines but Swiss and friends) are slightly less elegant. The departures area of this terminal is bigger than that of Terminal A, but usually more crowded. In spirit it reminds me strongly of London Gatwick or London Stansted: a whiff of "charter" hangs over the proceedings. Get everything off your baggage cart, because carts are kept tens of meters away from the check-in areas by a surrounding cordon of stanchions. Go to your assigned desk and check in, go through passport control, and you will find yourself in a duty free area impossible to tell from that in Terminal A. (If in fact it's not the same one.) My experience of Terminal B is that you need to keep a close eye on your (putative) departure gates: they tend to change suddenly, especially if the airline is one toward which the airport may be ambivalent, such as EasyJet. In any case, snacks and drinks are equally available in these outbound areas, and the duty-free is just as expensive as it is in Terminal A, and there are about as many places to sit.

Hope you've enjoyed your visit to ZRH...come again when you can!

...General information for this writeup came from:

  • http://www.unique.ch (the official Zurich Airport site)
  • http://www.bb62museum.org/airmus.html#s
  • http://www.duebendorf.ch/stadt/standort/vorstellung.htm#englisch
  • http://www.kloten.ch/default1.htm
  • http://www.airways.ch/zurich/en/airport/index.htm
  • Info on the early history of the airport comes from Chronik der Schweiz, Ex Libris / Chronik Verlag Dortmund, 1987: ISBN 3-7178-0026-4.
  • ...and also from http://socio.ch/movpar/t_rotha1.htm

Other interesting sources of info:

  • For images of the 1960's terminal building, see http://www.maglas.freeserve.co.uk/section2sep2000.htm
  • For links to much information about all aspects of Swiss aviation, see http://www.nelly.ch/
  • An unofficial guide to Zurich Airport in English and German: http://www.airportgallery.ch/
  • For Zurich Airport webcams, see http://www.airways.ch/zurich/en/airport/vs_lcam.htm
  • For info on airport restaurants (in German) see: http://www.unique.ch/mieter/2shopping/e_rest01sd.htm (Listed in there somewhere is the e-mail address of the Japanese restaurant, if you want to order some pre-flight sushi.)
  • Baeckerei-Konditorei Steiner, the airport bakery, has a German-language website at http://www.flughafebeck.ch/ (and the phone number for pre-ordering pre-flight goodies is here, for the branch in Terminal A): http://www.flughafebeck.ch/german/sgterminal_a.htm (and here for Terminal B:) http://www.flughafebeck.ch/german/sgterminal_b.htm
  • ...and further info was added from many, many visits