DUSSELDORF WEEZE AIRPORT
March 2007 saw me having to travel to Dusseldorf-Weeze Airport to meet a friend who was flying in from Prestwick Airport, Scotland. It wasn't actually as if I had far to go, because I was in Cologne at the time, so I just had to take myself off to the bus station at the back of the Köln Hauptbahnhof and look for the Schilling bus to the airport.
The driver was even older than I am, and his English was worse than my German, but we managed to have quite an exciting and animated conversation. And although the journey took about two and a half hours, I didn't notice as I passed the time in exciting conversation with a female Canadian medical researcher from Calgary. She worked in Cologne but her husband was stranded in Glasgow, so she flew back every weekend for a lovers' tryst. Not on the Prestwick Airport concourse, one imagines.
The busfare was €24 for my return ticket (valid for 24 hours) and the single ticket for Liz back was €18, which isn't bad for the distance you need to travel. But someone must be making a profit or they wouldn't be running the service. At the prices Ryanair charge, they can't be subsidising the bus journey, that's for sure.
I wasn't really sure what to expect here at Weeze. I knew that the civilian airport had been built around what used to be the old British RAF Laarbruch military base, a "Fortress sure" in the old Cold War days, strategically placed along the Netherlands border into which country the squaddies could quickly flee if ever the Soviet Union decided to flex its muscles.
You can certainly see the old military heritage too if you drive up here to the airport, as the road from the autobahn comes through the old base village, complete with remains of the NAAFI.
What you don't really expect to see though is something like this. I'm used to Ryanair airports such as Charleroi, Carcassonne and the like. Certainly nothing like this.
You can see that it's all modern, high-tech state-of-the-art airport terminal building. There's obviously been a considerable amount of investment in this airport. And it's not unattractive either. Someone has given some thought about the design, so it can't have been a British architect.
I suppose that the theory behind it is that there was a great deal of civilian input into the old RAF Laarbruch - all of which was lost when the British pulled out. Obviously something had to be done to stimulate the economy.
When you are sitting with a huge military airfield like this in the middle of a huge centre of population such as the Ruhr cities of Dusseldorf, Krefeld, and Essen, with Nijmegen just across the border in the Netherlands, then a budget airport seems to be a pretty good choice.
Another advantage of being relatively isolated is of course that there won't be too many people complaining about the noise. Particularly after the locals have had 60 years of RAF jets. And what with a densely-populated hinterland and good motorway connections, I'm really surprised that companies like DHL or FEDEX haven't been sniffing around here. They're always on the lookout for good locations for their night-time parcels flights.
You can see inside the terminal that they haven't spared much expense to turn what could have been a cold, unwelcoming shed into a modern, clean and welcoming environment.
A quick look up to the ceiling and you can see the barn construction quite clearly. No attempt has been made to disguise or camouflage it, but I suppose the idea is that there is so much to look at here that you won't be wanting to look upwards at the ceiling.
If you look on the left just here, you can see that there is a provision for about 10 check-in desks. However all the flights into Weeze with just one exception are by Ryanair. And there aren't all that many of them either. No more than a handful each day.
Obviously with this kind of set-up someone has big plans for this airport that involve more people than Ryanair. And I'm intrigued as to what they might be. There are a couple of budget German airlines but they get decent slots at more mainstream airports such as Dusseldorf and Cologne so it isn't going to be very likely that they are going to be coming here any time soon.
I could imagine a lot of charter stuff going from here - cheap landing slots in the middle of a dense population concentration and so on, but this looks more permanent than that.
All the exciting things that happen in this airport seem to happen upstairs. There's a fair range of shops and boutiques up here.
You can see that there are a couple of last-minute budget travel agents of the hand-scrawled "special last-minute offer" type. I'm not sure why, though. The last-minute trade passing through here must be absolutely zero, I reckon. Not enough for even one, let alone more than one.
I can only think that it's to do with internet sales mainly, and the obligatory "front office" presence as required under whatever is the German equivalent of ABTA rules makes a subsidised office space in an airport a good deal.
There's a good view from upstairs too, as you can see. It makes a change to have so much natural light in a building such as this. All you need now is some good weather and sunlight to go with it.
But a quick glance out of the window tells you why it was such a good location for a Cold War airfield when it was RAF Laarbruch. It's set in the middle of unproductive heathland in a forest. Of course, modern surveillance techniques render natural vegetation cover obsolete, but back in the 1940s hiding military installations in forests was really the thing to do.
One final thing to talk about, especially where I'm involved, is the refreshment facilities - or in my case, the availability of coffee. At the far end of the upper level is a quite-acceptable cafeteria that serves snacks (the ubiquitous German wurst, or sausage, as you might expect) and a pretty decent coffee. They'll even serve it in a fibre cup for mitnehmen if you are in a hurry, like I always seem to be.
There's also a balcony outside for when the weather is nice, which it was on Sunday when we brought Liz back, and from where many of the photographs below (the bright ones, that is) were taken. But there isn't much furniture out there and you'll be lucky to get a seat.
You don't need to look far to see the old military installations around here. The airfield is covered with them. You certainly can't ever forget the airport's military heritage.
It's certainly interesting to note the old ideas of camouflage dating from the 1940s. Everything painted in a drab olive green to merge in with the vegetation, and the hangars set back into the woods so that the trees might hide them. I was half-expecting to see some netting with branches and plants stuck in them.
But I can't stand here gossiping all afternoon. The flight is arriving as you can see through the trees.
It's the best time of the year to go around taking photographs - winter and early spring. While you miss out on the length of day and you need to be lucky with the weather (unlike today, unfortunately), you can take some pretty impressive shots through the vegetation without leaves getting in your way, like they would do in the summer.
Yes, it's a good job that it's early spring, as you can actually see the plane coming in. I must admit that I'm impressed with this photo. It would have been better without the trees at all, though. Next time I come to Weeze I'm going to come armed with a chainsaw.
But many people wonder why it is that no matter where the airport terminal is situated in relation to the runway, budget airlines always arrange for their aircraft to touch down past the terminal and then taxi back. The answer to that is quite simple. It's so that on taxiing back to the terminal, the crew can pick up the bits of the aircraft that fell off with the shock of the landing.
It's not just on one occasion that I've been obliged to ask of a pilot "did we land, or were we shot down?"
While I was waiting for Liz's flight to sort itself out, I went for a wander around to the hard-standing area to see what was about.
This is a Canadair CL 600 2B19, built by what is now the Bombardier company, and dates from 1993. It was originally owned by Lufthansa until May 2006, and carried the registration D-ACLF. Now it's owned by the Danish company Cimber Air and carries the registration OY-RJC.
Cimber Air offers flights around Denmark and southern Scandinavia, with just the odd flight elsewhere. Weeze isn't one of those destinations, so I've no idea why it was here.
While I was musing on all of this, Ryanair's Boeing pulled up on the hard-standing. This is EI-DAJ, one of Ryanair's 129 Boeing 737-800 aircraft, and was Boeing manufacture number 1274 33548. It was delivered new to the airline on 4th February 2003.
You know, when you think about it, 129 aircraft, all of them bought new as far as I can tell and the oldest dating from 1999, is an impressive fleet for any airline to own. There must be dozens of airlines casting their eyes, green with envy, across to Ireland and the legacy of the dream of Christy Ryan.
And this is the source of many problems that Ryanair is experiencing. The airline is currently under attack from two sides. Firstly, the major airlines have seen their profits slashed by the rises of the flying buses (and make no mistake, Ryanair is nothing more than a flying bus) and are doing all they can to run the company into the ground so that they can recapture Ryanair's traffic. Big companies have big bucks to spend on dirty tricks when it comes to attacking their smaller rivals, and Ryanair is a prime target for attack.
The second line of attack is from the expense-account businessmen. They are used to having up-market flights with all the perks that go with it. But beleagured business accountants have now cottoned on to companies such as Ryanair where they can shove their businessmen for less than half the price that a flagship carrier would charge. But there are no perks. These expense account businessmen have to buy their own whiskies, which of course are not reimbursed by the company. No wonder the poor darlings are so upset and go stirring things up.
No more expense-accounted gruel for cross-eyed Mary. She's been obliged to turn her attentions to the jack-knife barber, the letching grey watching her in the school playground, or even the little boys in her class at school following the launch of budget airlines.
What I find quite tragic about all of this is that the environmental campaigners attacking the budget airlines on environmental grounds have completely missed the point. They have no idea just how much they have been infiltrated and manipulated by big business. If they succeed in closing down these companies, the passengers won't stop flying - they'll just go by the flagship carriers instead who charge more money for the passengers to fly on older, more environmentally unfriendly jets that chuck out far more pollution than any of the modern jets that Ryanair owns. And of course, the environmentalists are all blind to this. They have been totally suckered in.
Where the environmentalists should be really venting their spleen is at central government. All governments are now encouraging globalisation, the free movement of people and the like. So people are going to move about Europe for a whole variety of reasons, and governments should really have thought about how people were going to do it.
The French were there first of course, with their high speed trains. The British attempts at this with their tilting trains led to abject failure and humiliation from which British railway engineers have never recovered. The Brits have now abandoned any kind of co-ordinated travel arrangements at a cost that anyone can afford. I was asked to pay £128 to travel from London to Bath the other weekend, a journey of 80 miles or so. My train from Brussels to Cologne cost me €51, or £30.
British transport is in total chaos - the Brits have recently spent well over £200 million on building a railway station that is never going to be used.
The idea behind Stratford International railway station was that there would be high-speed trains all over the UK and that they would converge on Stratford, where passengers could change for the European High-Speed Trains. But the Brits have abandoned any hope of building any high-speed trains anywhere apart from the French-inspired London - mainland Europe link, and for two reasons -
But this underlines a couple of other problems.
Firstly, British engineers are technically incompetent. The problems with the Millennium Dome are too numerous to describe. The problems with Wembley Stadium are likewise too numerous to recount. Then you have the Millennium Wheel, the name of which was discretely changed to the "London Eye" after it missed the millennium, and of course, the Millennium Bridge, which was closed due to a design and engineering phenomenon that was first recognised over 150 years ago.
Just recently, there was a rail crash in the north-west of England that devastated the British rail network because a couple of fitters couldn't even put two bolts in a hole correctly. What chance do they have of building a modern high-speed rail network? And would you want to travel at speeds of over 200mph on railway track maintained by clowns such as these?
Secondly, the UK is probably one of the only countries in the world where the loss of fuel duty from travellers abandoning fossil-fuelled vehicles (such as aircraft and cars) for environmentally-friendly methods of transport such as electrically-powered railways, is actually calculated into the cost of improving the rail network. So the railways are starting off from a long way behind, even before a single inch of new track is laid. Can you imagine a country that is as crazy as the UK?
And this is how come an entire system of budget airlines has been allowed to get off the ground in the UK, and why a high-speed rail network will never see the light of day. Britian will still remain a country with a rail network more suited to a third-world banana republic.
This is why Liz, whenever she wants to go to Cologne to see Jackie, has to take a train from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Prestwick Airport (always assuming that the railway isn't on strike), a budget aeroplane from Prestwick to Weeze, and then a bus from Weeze to Cologne, instead of an environmentally-friendly 21st century High Speed train from Newcastle upon Tyne to Cologne, changing at Stratford International and Lille Europe.
And the environmentalists can't see any of this. Having been thoroughly infiltrated and manipulated by big business, they are all barking. And not just up the wrong tree either.
One of the downsides of flying on the Flying Bus is that the facilities are almost non-existent. There are no covered gangways, walkways, or buses, or even War of the Worlds machines to ferry the passengers to the terminal. The nearest you are likely to get to a machine is to take a trip on Shanks's pony.
Not much fun in the rain, as you can see. And probably even worse in -10° and a biting easterner, but as I keep explaining to people, you don't pay bus fare and expect to ride in a Rolls Royce.
It never ceases to amaze me that people complain about companies such as Ryanair - "We have to walk to the aeroplane" or "we have to pay for our coffee" or "the stewardess was rude" or "we had to pay £4:00 to check our baggage in" when they've paid £20:00 for a flight that would have cost them 100 quid with any other carrier.
I've had a few run-ins with Ryanair in the past but am I complaining? Not likely! Some stewardess can be as rude as she likes to me, but I don't care. I have to pay for my own ticket and if I'm going to save 80 quid on the trip, then none of this is any big deal to me.
It's caused by two factors - firstly the natural greed that some people have, to get as much as they can for as little as possible and hope that by stirring up a fuss, the airline will cave in; and secondly, the people are so naive that they can't see how they are being manipulated by the shills from the business world who are going to any lengths possible to launch smear campaigns against the budget airlines.
For the return flight, Liz was lucky enough to have nice weather to see her off back to Scotland.
Here is EI-DAJ again back from wherever it's been over the weekend, being fuelled up for the return journey to Prestwick. Liz, Jackie and I loitered around for a while to see whether the refueller was going to pass the credit card machine to the pilot, as happened on a more famous occasion, but no such luck. That kind of thing only happens in Hollywood, so it seems.
As Liz walked out to board the plane, she couldn't resist a quick look backwards to see if Jackie and I were waiting to see her off, or whether we had gone fahr'n fahr'n fahr'ning back down the Autobahn to Cologne.
And knowing that she would do that, we stayed behind to have a coffee and take a quick snap of her looking for us, just so that we could prove that, like Max Boyce, we were there
EI-DAJ taxied of down the runway in the general direction of where it had landed in Friday afternoon (presumably to pick up the bits that had fallen off on landing and to stretch the elastic to its fullest extent), did the traditional U-turn at the bottom end of the runway, and then unstuck the brakes.
I have to interject here the fact that my new Pentax K100D" is superb. This photo of a fast-moving jet aircraft was taken right across the airfield on full zoom through a perspex screen. Then the plane was cropped from the background and enlarged. All I've done to the image is to sharpen it.
As long as I don't do anything silly like drop it or lose it, I can see I'm going to have my money's worth out of this camera.
And on that point, Liz's aeroplane unstuck itself (the French for "to take off", in an aviation sense that is, is décoller - quite literally "to unstick", and I think it's such an apt description of an aircraft taking off) and began to disappear into the sunset.
Well, maybe a bit of poetic licence here I reckon because it's still well in view, and it was anything but sunset too. But once more, all credit to the Pentax" for capturing a shot like this.
Once again, it's a fast-moving jet aeroplane shot on full zoom through a perspex screen, and then cropped and enlarged. I can't even remember if I sharpened the image.
And on that note, Jackie and I set off to fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n down the Autobahn back to Cologne.