14.10.2010

Living the dream of flying

Kitchens, kindergartens, agriculture: You would not usually associate terms like these with one of the biggest airports in Europe. But Munich Airport offers exactly this: a small town with the feel of a metropolis that is all about flying.

Is is of course not a „grown“ town, it is a town from the drawing board. The construction work in the „Erdinger Moos“ had taken seven years until the airport moved from Munich-Riem to its new destination in just one night. What followed was a tremendous growth, a second terminal, and soon there will be a new building called „Satellite“ for even more pieces of luggage, passengers, and staff. Even now, the bare figures belong to the realm of superlatives: 30,000 employees make sure that 25 million passengers can be checked in per year just in terminal 2. The „old“ terminal 1 can manage further ten millions. The passengers of course bring a lot of luggage with them: There are 100,000 bags and suitcases a day, sorted within 15 minutes, delivered to the baggage caroussels or to another plane – given an overall length of 58 kilometres for the entire sorting system.

Do things get lost in there sometimes? „Around 5 percent of all pieces of luggage fall through the cracks“, admits Monika Eicke of Munich Airport’s visitors programme. The reason for this, however, is usually not a failure of the sorting system – no less than three number codes on the transporting tub, on the piece of luggage itself and on the transporting car on the runway ensure that it works. It is rather that the staff discovers quite a lot of weird – and forbidden – contents in the suitcases: „We have had everything here in our control systems – from the songbird to food and drugs to body parts“, Monika Eicke sums up. If everything turns out to be alright, the luggage is loaded into the gigantic bodies of the commercial aircrafts. The planes are not allowed to stay longer than 35 minutes on the ground – after all, time is money. That is why the maintenance of the „air giants“ is only carried out late at night: „From 10 p.m. we work at full tilt“, confirms Friedrich Sorger of Lufthansa technical department. He works in the huge maintenance hangar which is more than 300 metres long and almost 90 metres wide. Even „big birds“ like the Airbus 400-600 easily fit into the spacious hall, „only the new A380 is two metres too high, unfortunately“, Sorger regrets. All the same, the building seems like a playground from „Gulliver’s travels“ – a playground for techno-nerds. And perhaps also for superstitious people: There is a floppy hat which is at least five metres long, hanging on the wall of the hangar. A talisman? Sorger laughs: „No, no. Citizens from Passau donated it to put it on top of an Airbus as we named a plane after the city.“

What with all the fun, the employees work with earnest care. Especially the engines and the landing gear are critical parts. Their tyres, filled with nitrogen, are exchanged after 300 take-offs and landings at the latest – then the steel fabric already starts shimmering through. Matter of expense for this special tyre change: 10,000 Euros. But also service is attached great importance to: The maintenance team offers a dry clean with surface sealing for the aircraft. For a car, a cleaning session at the car wash would take only five minutes. In the case of a large Airbus, it takes seven employees working for no less than 13 hours. Polished, maintained and filled, the planes return to the runway. Now it is time for air-traffic control in the tower to take over. Highly concentrated flight controllers take charge of everything that is happening in the air from a darkened, extremely quiet room. What they can hardly enjoy, though, is the splendid view over the entire airport premises, over the runways and the elegant roof of terminal 1 star architect Helmut Jahn designed for the airport. Very likely, the flight controllers will also ignore the swaying below their feet because the control tower moves like a leaf in the wind: The 78-metre high tower can bend by up to three metres – it feels like a ship dancing on the waves.

It is a ship on a long journey; a journey that never ends: the control tower is staffed around the clock. Although official air traffic finishes at midnight at the latest and only begins at five in the morning, even in the middle of the night there are special flights that have to be taken care of – Munich Airport is indeed a city that never sleeps. It is no wonder then that many employees live at the airport right away. After all, the infrastructure is perfect: there are supermarkets, a connection to the suburban train and a kindergarten named „Airport Hopser.“ This is added by several kitchen operations, a fire brigade of its own including winter road maintenance, home-brewed beer from the „Air Bräu“ and even airport honey from the proprietary bee colony. Officially, this was only established here to test the air quality via „bio monitoring“, but after harvest time, says Monika Eicke, „the honey is gone very very soon.“ By the way, the sweet spread is said to have no aftertaste of kerosene whatsoever – this is just in the air as a very light haze. And somehow it smells of wanderlust.

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