How far is too far to walk?

It feels weird to be writing a review — even if it is just a mini-review — of walking through an airport.  There’s hardly anything noteworthy (let alone higher flyer) about these experiences, but Madrid-Barajas’s Adolfo Suárez is a special case.  Its Terminal 4, which serves as the home base for the Spanish flag carrier Iberia, is big, beautiful, and kinda controversial.  The building’s aesthetic is top-notch, but the sprawl of it can be overwhelming.  If you’re flying out of Madrid, well, you’re going to want to prepare for it more than you otherwise would… hence the reason for The Higher Flyer to publish a guide!


Header image courtesy of Jean Pierre Dalbera; access via Wikipedia.


Getting from central Madrid out to Adolfo Suárez is conveniently easy — you can take public trains or city buses for a few Euros — and the ride typically takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the time of day and the traffic.  Once you get there though things can become a little bit complicated.  If you’re flying an airline that’s not Iberia or one of its oneworld partners (like AA or British Airways) then you’ll go to Terminals 1, 2, or 3.  If you get confused, no worries because those three are all connected and you can easily walk between them.  Iberia and its friends (AA, BA, et. al) on the other hand have Terminal 4 and its satellite concourse exclusively to themselves.  Being “under one roof” makes connections a snap, but the downside is that they’re far removed and not within walking distance of everything else at the airport.

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Notice how far away Terminal 4 and Terminal 4s are from the others.

The practical application of this arrangement:  if you’re coming in by public transportation, be sure that you pay close attention to where you’re supposed to get off.  This takes on a critical importance if you’re running late (and I was running late for my flight home) because if you make a mistake, you risk getting stranded far away from where you need to be with no easy or timely way to correct course.  There’s a free shuttle that loops between all four terminals, but these buses run only every fifteen minutes, and ride times can take up to 15 minutes.

Terminal 4 is rewarding though once you get there.  It’s relatively new, having been opened in 2006, and it’s an architectural marvel.  If you don’t believe me, check out the space where American operates its check-in counters and machines.

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What an impressive scene!

The high, wavy, and wooden ceiling is accentuated by massive skylights and complemented by entire walls of windows; this design language is commonplace throughout the complex.  The motif works well, as the style is both visually attractive and practical too.  The terminal is equipped to handle 70 million travelers per year (source), but the hustle and bustle is minimized by extraordinary, sound-reducing acoustics and ample amounts of natural light.  Seriously, the moments leading up to your flight can be downright zen-like.

Madrid-Barajas’s T4 is so pleasant to walk around in, but do note that this airport does not favor those who are #TeamJustInTime.  Going from curb to plane borderlines on an ordeal, and, if you’re rushing, the stress of doing this will detract from the otherwise inviting terminal.  You’re best getting here two hours or more before departure (and that’s coming from someone who prefers cutting it as close as possible).  My flight, as an example, was scheduled to push back at 10:55am, and I arrived at check-in at around 9:30am.  Despite being there nearly 90 minutes in advance, it felt like it was too late.  After quickly collecting my boarding pass — AA offers priority lines for status holders and passengers in premium cabins — the journey-before-the-journey begins in earnest.

Most of the intercontinental flights leaving Madrid operate out of the “S” section of Terminal 4, so if you’re exiting the Schengen Zone, you’re more-than-likely going to have to navigate to the “S” gates.  (Indeed, I had to get to “S5.”)  To get there, you’re first funneled in to a corridor that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.  That’s overwhelming and, on top of that, the posted signage can be spatially counterintuitive.

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You know there’s a long way to go when the end of the walkway fades in to the distance (as shown here).  Also, believe it or not, but the signs shown here are instructing you to keep walking forward (and not turn around and/or go down a level).

Along the way — after maybe five minutes of walking — you’ll encounter an expansive security checkpoint.  There’s an easy-to-find, dedicated “Fast Track” channel for VIP travelers (who have status and/or are flying in a premium cabin) off to the side, but both the general and priority lines were short.  Granted, the airport wasn’t crowded at this time of morning, but there were many open spots; it’s easy to envision crowds being dispersed evenly throughout the terminal during rush hour.

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You have to cross a bridge in order to get to any one of the security checkpoints, and some are more obviously marked than others.

The screening in the “Fast Track” section was quick and easy and efficient — the space seemed overstaffed, but that’s not a bad thing — and I was able to get through in about five minutes.  By this time it was nearly 10am, boarding was starting in about 15 minutes, and I had to get to Gate S5.  You’d think that wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but no, there’s still a lot more walking/running involved.

Next you have to go down a series of slow-moving escalators and then catch a shuttle to take you from Terminal 4 to Terminal 4’s satellite.  This takes about another 7-10 minutes, and it’s during this process that you’re informed that you have 10 minutes to go to the “M” section (which is used primarily for intra-Europe/Schengen flights) and a whopping 22 minutes to get to the “S” section.

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It’s hard to tell with this graphic/photo, but despite being up to 22 minutes away from your gate area, you’ve only gone about halfway so far.

By this point it was about 10:05, boarding was starting in 10 minutes, and the signs said that there was at least 22 minutes of walking ahead of me.  Urgh!

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To their credit, the trains run pretty frequently…

On the opposite end of this train ride, you’re deposited in to another holding pen for the “S” section.  Here everyone queues up for passport control.  Just like the security checkpoint, the operation here is run efficiently — there are lots of border guards on staff and open counters for servicing — and there’s a separate priority lane too that’s even faster.

Once through that, you’re obligated to walk through a cramped, stuffy, and too-warm duty free section…

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This place regrettably doesn’t fit in with the rest of the airport’s aesthetic

…That’s also home to Iberia’s flagship business class lounge, La Sala Velázquez.  It’s in an unconventional location to say the least, its entrance is unassuming at best, plasticky and tacky at worst, but at least it’s easy to find.  You HAVE to walk past it; you literally cannot miss it.  Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for me to visit it, let alone take pictures of it for a review, but the place seems to garner widespread acclaim.  Oh well, maybe next time…

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It may look underwhelming, especially in the context of a duty free mall, but it’s quite nice on the inside.

The “Neptuno Lounge” is located nearby too.  For those wondering, that dramatically-named club can be accessed by Priority Pass account holders and those willing to buy a 35 Euro per person day pass.  If you have time before your flight but can’t get in to La Sala Velázquez, there’s an option for you, but it’s probably not worth going out of your way for.

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A stock image of the Neptuno Lounge; photo courtesy of Priority Pass.

Anyway, after escaping the dreadful duty free tunnel — regrettably without a lounge visit mixed in there — I was back in to another beautiful part of the airport and in to the home stretch, albeit a very long home stretch.  This was finally the promised “S” section.

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Another hallway that extends in to oblivion.  That’s a common sight at this airport!

Roughly 22 minutes after first reading the roadmap sign, Gate S5 came in to view just as predicted.  It’s now nearly 10:30am and boarding is well underway, but ohoho, not so fast!  There was ANOTHER passport checkpoint, but this one was run by American Airlines employees.  Perhaps they wanted to cross check passengers’ details with what was on the manifest?  Were they mandated by law to perform such inspections?  None of that was clear and no one working the station was in a hurry, but they all promised that the plane wouldn’t leave without anyone.

2019 AA Business Class 767 01 11 first plane glimpse

Indeed, at 10:40am (15 minutes before scheduled pushback), I was walking down the jetway with time to spare.  All’s well that ends well?   But still though, PHEW, yet again…

To recap:  on a good day with minimal lines and a quick walking pace, it took me nearly 70 minutes to go from curb-to-plane at Madrid-Barajas.  That’s an excruciatingly long time and moreover, my fitness tracker indicated I walked over a mile.  That’s convenient if you want to get your steps in before a long flight, but otherwise potentially frustrating and difficult too.  Heaven help you if you have mobility challenges, although there are the usual complimentary shuttle/wheelchair services to help ease the transiting process.  In these regards, despite its pleasing design aesthetic, this airport isn’t passenger friendly.  There’s not much you can do about those obstacles beyond preparing accordingly/remembering that this isn’t the place to test your #JustInTime hustle.  Good luck, and fly higher!


“Another Weekend to Europe” Trip Report

Have you flown through Madrid-Barajas’s Terminal 4?  Is there anything more worth flagging?