When I first I graduated I joined an international company and worked in sales and marketing. My first overseas 'territory' was Germany where I worked with a local agent who was based near Koln. As a result I bobbed back and forth to Germany using Dusseldorf as my main airport. I wasn't the only one – in fact most of my colleagues were also back and forth and Dusseldorf airport usually had one or two of us passing through most weeks. Then in April 1996 fire broke out in the airport whilst two of my colleagues were sitting on a plane about to take off. 17 people died that day and many more were hospitalised. The whole of Germany shook their heads and asked how such a thing could happen in their efficient and wholesome country. My colleagues had a very lucky escape; half an hour later and they would have been caught in the blaze. As a result, each time I pass through Dusseldorf I stop and think of the dead of April 11th 1996.
For a while after the fire, flights were diverted to nearby Dortmund airport – a rather small airport that struggled to cope. Then we flew for a few months out of marquees – not so much fun when it was cold but with a strangely ebullient party atmosphere. Eventually the airport - patched up and prettified - opened its doors again and displayed to the world a new face. With its head held high, I could almost ignore that the designers had somehow tracked down carpeting of the most monumental ugliness – someone somewhere had sold them a carpet with a pattern that looked like it was covered in squished chewing gum.
On my most recent visit to Dusseldorf I had a lot of time to stop and think about the airport. I'd spent a whole day in the conference centre and then on the morning I was due to head home, my flight to Birmingham was delayed. I can't blame Lufthansa for this unless I can find a way to imagine they went over and dropped a bunch of snow on Birmingham and closed the airport. However, unlike a UK airport where the tempers would have caught and voices would have been raised (not quite how the world likes to imagine us cold emotionless Brits but we do seem to get very rude in airports) we all calmly sat down and just waited for news. And as I sat there and looked around, I realised that I actually really rather like Dusseldorf airport and in its own quiet way it's always been there for me.
I've suffered the trauma of arriving at Dusseldorf and discovering my plane was somewhere completely different and being cosseted by Lufthansa who sorted me out with an alternative route home via somewhere in the wrong direction but upgraded me on both flights to say 'sorry' for a problem that they hadn't really caused. During my recent delay, the duty managers were faultlessly polite and supportive – up to the point of offering alternative destinations but not to the point of offering to get me back to where I was supposed to be. I took a stroll admiring the departures area with its high bright ceiling, its spacious waiting areas and multitudinous desks. I didn't see a major queue on either day that I was there. I particularly enjoyed the giant stuffed giraffes (I hope I can find a photo) who advertise Sixt car rentals. I assume they must be advertising that you can get extra head room. There feet are in arrivals and there heads are in departures. You can also watch the monorail sliding back and forth from the airport terminal to the nearby railway station and car parks.
More than 60 airlines use Dusseldorf airport. All have check-in in a centralised curved zone which branches into three legs – called imaginatively A, B and C. Lufthansa and the Star Alliance use A; the Air Berlin group is the biggest player in the B zone whilst the SkyTeam alliance uses B&C.
For me Dusseldorf really comes into its own is as a transfer hub. Let me explain. On one hand the benefit of my local airports all being small or mid-sized, is that I can show up an hour before and not two. But the down side is that there aren't many places I can fly to directly. When I used to visit Hamburg a lot, I had options of connecting through Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels or a bunch of different German airports. Now if you're familiar with European airlines you'd probably eat your own liver before you'd voluntarily fly Air France. Going via Amsterdam or Brussels involves such a long walk between arrival and departure zones that you'll wonder if they expect you to walk to your final destination rather than fly. Going via Frankfurt or Munich is a serious case of over-shooting your destination so if I had the chance, Dusseldorf and Lufthansa was always my first choice.
When you arrive at Dusseldorf airport from the UK, you transfer in the A-zone of the airport. This is very neatly arranged. The bus (unfortunately it does usually seem to be a bus transfer) will drop you right near the passport control, plenty of people will be manning the desks and your onward departure gate will generally be no more than about 50 feet from the passport control. They line things up so nicely that you really can make a 45 minute connection, maybe even less if you have only hand luggage. And in the opposite direction it's again just as simple. All the Lufthansa flights use the same zone and it's really very stress-less.
In 2008 there were a lot of repairs being made in the A-zone and the airport was noisy, dusty and not very pleasant. The work is now all completed and things are back to normal. By European standards the range of shops is fairly good, the duty free selection (if you are eligible) is pretty comprehensive and there are several snack bars and bars to choose from.
I would characterise Dusseldorf as a mid-sized airport. It's not enormous like Frankfurt where you can walk for hours to reach your departure gate and not so small (like Koln/Bonn) that you have very limited choices. Unfortunately though it doesn't have connections to Bremen which is now the main place that I visit. Never mind – it still makes me smile when I have the chance to use it.