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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.