Why an airport linking 112 nations needs a disco

Frankfurt's airport is Germany's largest employer and Europe's largestair- cargo handler. It's also a crossroads for the world.

The men in the subterranean levels below Frankfurt Airport are systematic and quick about their work. Their hope is that the jet-lagged transit passengers in Terminal 1 will never notice if nimble fingers have pried open their suitcases and probed the contents.

"Within 30 seconds we can open any suitcase in such a way that no locks are broken," says Hermann Sckl, who has been in this line of business for 14 years. "We have the right to check every suitcase."

Mr. Sckl and his team are looking for contraband, not loot. They belong to the customs office at the busiest airport on the European mainland.

Every hour, more than 74 flights take off and land in a cobweb of air routes stretching from the heart of Germany to 112 countries, linking cities from Havana to Hong Kong, Buenos Aires to Johannesburg, South Africa.

It all comes naturally to Frankfurt, which has been a European crossroads of commerce for more than 12 centuries.

Of the more than 40 million passengers who pass through Frankfurt Airport every year, almost every second traveler is only stopping over. To accommodate them, the airport's 35-mile-long baggage conveyor system can handle 10,000 pieces of luggage per hour.

There is neither time nor personnel to inspect all of the luggage on every plane. But, as at other airports, the use of dogs and X-ray machines substantially eases the search for drugs and weapons.

Bodo the detective

Bodo, the German shepherd, sniffs out a small packet of coca leaves on luggage from a flight from Buenos Aires. An officer throws the bag away, as prosecution for such a negligible amount is not worth the effort. Bodo is one of 19 dogs that specialize in finding narcotics at the airport. Two others detect explosives. The big trophies are the cocaine shipments headed for Germany's streets - or suitcases full of American guns destined for Balkan battlefields.

In another room, Frankfurt customs keeps a collection of goods violating endangered species laws: wolf furs, snakeskin cowboy boots, coral, and a stuffed turtle. The 21,500 items confiscated last year - almost a tenth of them living plants or animals - are a testament to the far-flung destinations that Frankfurt Airport connects.

From African Safari Airways and Siberia Airlines to Tyrolean Airways and Iran Air, airlines from around the world have turned Frankfurt into Europe's second-busiest passenger airport, after London's Heathrow. It ranks first in the volume of cargo.

Lufthansa, the German national carrier, has made Frankfurt its international and domestic hub. Lufthansa's "butterfly hangar" is 900 feet long and can accommodate six jumbo jets.

With more than 58,000 employees working for more than 400 companies, the airport has become Germany's single largest job machine and the economic motor for the greater Frankfurt region.

In the ground crew alone, 25 nationalities work side by side. One-fourth of these workers are ethnic Turks, such as Ahmet Cakir. "We have to get along well to get the job done right," he says.

Mr. Cakir says the last time he went on vacation, co-workers played a joke by wrapping so much tape around his suitcase that he didn't recognize it in Istanbul.

At least in theory, there is little time for pranks, since the airport pledges a transfer time of as little as 45 minutes. For most travelers, however, the wait is rarely so short.

"We're not in a trance, but in transit," jokes Markus Schori, a pastor from Geneva en route with his family to Bali, Indonesia.

To counter the ennui, Frankfurt Airport boasts 120 shops, 40 restaurants and cafes, children's playgrounds, even a disco. For the airport aficionado, there are guided bus tours.

For those seeking a moment of reflection, there are nondenominational chapels in both of the airport's two terminals - as well as separate prayer rooms for Muslims and Jews.

The Rev. Walter Maader, who has been holding daily masses in German, English, French, and Latin for 27 years, is said to be the longest-serving airport chaplain in the world.

Church organizations also play an important role in assisting refugees who show up here. In 1997, 2,312 undocumented asylum seekers passed through the airport, one of the major gateways to the European Union.

"The number of refugees that are detained here is unprecedented in Europe," says Javad Adineh, the deputy director of Airport Social Services.

Staying competitive

While the airport is a gateway to Europe in every respect, many planners worry that Frankfurt may lose its competitive edge because of overburdened capacity.

Currently there are plans for $560 million in renovation and expansion work, including 12 new gates due to open in mid-2000. A fourth runway is also planned, despite the reservations of local environmentalists.

For the city, the maintenance of a major hub in its environs is not only essential to keeping the local economy humming: The airport is also Frankfurt's window to the world and the first - often only - impression of Germany that more than 100,000 travelers take away with them every day.

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