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Change at Athens – part two

Continuing with our guide to Athens airport for connecting passengers.
There are two gaps in the line of checkin desks which allow access to the shopping and catering area behind them, and also to the actual departure gates. The central area is still landside (no boarding pass required). This is useful if you have a long connection, no boarding pass for your onward journey, and the checkin desk isn’t open yet – though this is more likely on your return journey where some airlines only open their checkin desks 2-3 hours before departure. Because Olympic and Aegean use single queuing systems, and allow on line checkin from Athens, you are likely to be able to offload your bag and /or pick up a boarding card easily on your way to Rhodes.
The landside area contains two coffee shops/sandwich bars/pastry shops – one Grigoris, one Everest, for connoisseurs of Greek food chains, on the wall behind the checkin, along with a newspaper/book shop, and various other shops. On the opposite area is a food court. To the right is the main entrance with counters supplying pizza, filled baguettes, pasta, Greek specialities, a self service salad bar, coffee machines etc. When you’ve made your choice carry on round to the tills to pay, and on to the seating area. This is shared with a cafe bar that you get to by taking the left hand entrance instead of the right hand one from the main hallway. On the same wall are more shops to either side of the food court, and to the left are lifts and escalators to a mezzanine floor. This has a waiter service restaurant (The Olive Tree – no connection with the Symi business of the same name) and a MacDonalds with a good view of the aircraft. The mezzanine extends across as a bridge over the checkin area creating space for a couple of museum displays, one of archaeological finds made during construction of the airport, and the other dedicated to the Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, after whom the airport is named. Various temporary displays can also be found in this area, and there are stairs back to checkin as well.
Back at the landside area behind the checkin, walk left for access to the B gates, the domestic and intra-Schengen area. You will have to show your boarding pass to get into the area, but according to the airport authorities you can still access it with an A-gate boarding pass, to get to the shops, some of which are different to those in the A-gate area. I have managed to do this sometimes, other times security don’t seem to understand teh airport’s official policy. You can’t do the reverse, and enter the A-gate area ( to the right of the central landside area) after the boarding pass checkpoint, because you come up against the passport control booths almost immediately.
The B-zone airside (after boarding pass control) has more shops, including a better bookshop, the usual selection of Travel Value shops (no duty-free for journeys within the EU) and three cafes selling drinks of all kinds plus cheese pies etc. It also has a reasonable amount of seating, and five executive lounges (see Lounging About, the next post of this blog)
The A-zone is similar, with fewer shops. In theory you can leave the B-zone and return to the central area if you wish, and then enter again later. This doesn’t apply to the A-zone because you will have officially left the country.
Athens airport has the inevitable hand-baggage xray machines and walk-through metal detectors, like all European airports. Less usually, there are separate security checkpoints for each group of gates, and the enforcement of the rules on liquids is rigorous. You need to make sure you have enough time to pass through security and get to the gate before the time boarding is due to start. It can be a long walk to some of the gates as well. Low numbers are nearest the centre of the airport. A-gates numbered in the 30s are in the satellite, allow extra time to get there, and B-gates numbered in the 20s are down one floor and mean you will be taken to the aircraft by bus. This is common, but not universal, for flights to/from Rhodes.
When shopping, if you buy any alcohol or perfumes make sure they are packed in the special tamperproof bags with the receipt showing, or they will be confiscated at security. Bottled water will also be taken off you, along with coffees, frappes, soft drinks etc. I’d recommend also asking for the special bags if you buy soap or cheese, apparently these items look a lot like plastic explosive to the X-ray machine operators and you will get a hand search of your bag, which causes you delay. If you have anything in the special bags, including items bought at other EU airports, put them separately in the plastic trays, not inside other bags, to avoid this.
There are toilet facilities throughout the airport, even in the gate areas, kept very clean, as indeed is the whole terminal.
Once you’ve escaped from security, and put everything back where you want it to be, find the actual gate you want – remember that blocks of gates share security points. Find a seat, and wait for boarding to start. Of course you may be lucky, and find boarding is under way, but they aren’t yet screaming out for you. It is normal for the disabled and families with young children to be boarded first, or at least separately. For your journey to Rhodes you will have an assigned seat number, so there isn’t that much point in rushing to the front as soon as boarding starts anyway, especially if you are going by bus to the aircraft as the last on the bus may well be first off again. When returning home EasyJet, and probably some other low-cost carriers, don’t assign seat numbers, you have people who have paid for priority boarding, and then everyone else, maybe in order of when you checked in if you’re lucky.

Change at Athens – part one

I’ve mentioned connecting at Athens before, this and following posts are meant to be a survival guide to Athens Airport.

Athens airport is still one of the newest in the world. It was opened in 2001 to be ready for the 2004 Olympics and replaced the earlier airport at Hellenikon. I have mixed memories of the old airport – coming off the overnight EasyJet flight from Luton to be greeted by an outsize tabby cat asleep on top of a disused X-ray machine, and an overpowering smell of cigarette smoke – pure Greece. But there were also the days when every flight seemed to be delayed, there was no air conditioning, nowhere to sit, and minimal catering. If that’s what you remember too, have another try with the new airport.

It is designed for function rather than looks – 157 checkin desks in a straight line with just the information desk to break up the perspective looks pretty impressive, though.

There is one main terminal building, a satellite terminal connected to the main one by underground walkway, and a very large number of additional aircraft parking stands with bus transfers to the main terminal. Operationally the terminal is divided into Schengen and Non-Schengen areas. The Schengen area is used for flights to or from countries in the Schengen area, and for domestic flights, and has no immigration or customs control. The non-Schengen zone is for everywhere else, and includes the satellite terminal, it has immigration controls, and customs officers are around when flights arrive from outside the EU. There are separate baggage reclaim areas for the two zones. The remote parking stands can serve either zone, depending on which one the bus arrives at/departs from.

When you arrive in either zone you will spend a fair amount of time walking through passages and eventually arrive at one of the transfer desk areas. These are staffed only sporadically, and are meant to handle passengers connecting on through tickets who haven’t got the boarding pass for the next flight. If you have arrived on an Olympic or Aegean flight and are connecting onto another one, you’ll almost certainly have been given boarding passes for both flights at your original airport, but there are combinations of airlines where through tickets can be issued but the first airline can’t issue boarding passes for the second one. You’ll also need the transfer desk if you have a boarding pass but your arriving flight is so late you have missed the connection, and want them to put you on a later departure.

Otherwise, avoid the desk, but note the large display screens nearby which show the departure gate numbers for the next 30 or so flights, you can see where you need to make for. Gates prefixed A are in the Non-Schengen area, B-gates are Schengen/domestic. There are shortcut transfer routes from the transfer desk area that take you to the departures area bypassing the baggage reclaim area, but I find it easier to go straight ahead (through immigration in Zone A) to the baggage hall, even if I don’t have a bag to collect. If you’re in Zone A you’ll need to pass through immigration to officially enter Greece – there are desks on the bypass route too, but many more on the main route. Baggage return is pretty quick compared to many airports.

If you do have a problem the baggage enquiry desks are against the wall – just look for the one with the sign for the airline you’ve arrived on.

There are plenty of trolleys around, but you have to pay for using them, you’ll need Euro coins. As my bag has wheels I don’t know how much the trolley fee is.

Once you are ready to move on, the exit doors are opposite the baggage belts, not all the sets of doors will be available at quiet times in the Non-Schengen zone to economise on customs officers.

Leaving the baggage hall, you enter the public area of the terminal, and there will be the usual meeters and greeters. You are in a long passageway. Straight in front is the way out of the building to the bus stops, the taxi rank, and, by crossing the road, the railway/metro station.

Along the passageway are car rental desks, two banks with ATM cash machines, a Post Office, and various shops including a florists. At the extreme Zone A end is a left-luggage company which will store bags for you at a price. This could be useful if you have a really long connection and want to go into the city.

On the same side as the baggage hall you’ve just left there are several sets of lifts and escalators to the departures level. To get to the lifts you need to go through glass double doors into one of the lift lobbies. These look like you’re entering offices, which can put people off.

As you enter Departures you see the famous 157 checkin desks in front of you, with the main airport information counter in the centre. Aegean uses a block of desks to the left of the information counter, while Olympic are on the right. Both companies have separate desks for business class passengers, and others for economy passengers who have checked in on line and just need to hand over their baggage. The main economy checkin queue snakes through sets of moveable barriers to feed into several (up to 15 at busy times) desks which handle all flights. Now keen followers of this blog (are there any) may remember that last year I said there were 3 airlines operating between Athens and Rhodes – where is the third one? Well, at the time I wrote that Athens Airways flew twice a day to Rhodes, but a combination of having higher costs than the competition because of the type of aircraft they chose to use, and a desire to take part in the subsidised route scheme with guaranteed income, has caused their Rhodes service to disappear. As Aegean and Olympic manage 9 flights every day between them, this isn’t too much of a problem.