In Madrid's Barajas International Airport I found a fine example of how a major international airport should look, feel and operate. I did no more than change planes there on my journey between Bilbao and North America, but that was enough time to enjoy the airport - especially the massive, shiny and efficient terminal 4.
Terminal 4, designed by brand-name architects Richard Rogers and Antonio Lamela, opened in 2006. About a mile and a half away via clean, modern, automated trains is the terminal 4 satellite facility. Together, the two terminals command some 8 million square feet of space inside and out. This makes for one of the largest airport terminals in the world.
Most of the time, as I discovered on my recent transit, this is good; there are plenty of flights, plenty of gates, plenty of shops and comfortable, well-designed passenger lounges. Even when you sit by the departure gate waiting for boarding to begin, the airport is comfortable - thanks in part to its soaring ceilings and enormous windows, which permit plenty of natural light to softly illuminate the space during the daylight hours.
Of course, sometimes - as when you are rushing to make a connecting flight - being in an enormous terminal is not so good. It can take up to 20 minutes to reach the most remote departure gates at Barajas with a combination of walking and riding the automated trains.
Iberia, the big Spanish airline slated to merge with British Airways, is the dominant carrier at Madrid Barajas, accounting for some 60 percent of all passengers. Iberia shares terminal 4 and its satellite facility with BA and other oneworld alliance members. Spaniards I talked to did not speak well of Iberia, and on my return flight to Madrid Barajas from Bilbao, I saw why. Lines were long in the much smaller Bilbao airport, some passenger check-in kiosks weren't working and Iberia's customer service reps took their time dispensing help and advice.
Back at Barajas, this all reversed and the Iberia reps were fine. Fine, too, were Iberia's mezzanine-level first-and-business-class passenger lounges in terminal 4. They were spacious, bathed in natural light and offered oodles of open spaces and nooks for people to work, doze, chat or watch TV. The food offerings, however, were only so-so, more snacks than meals, unlike the great airline lounges in Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.
With nearly 50 million yearly passengers, Madrid Barajas is the 11th-busiest airport in the world, the fourth-busiest in Europe and the biggest and busiest airport in Spain. For all its big numbers, I found operations to be generally smooth. Located only about 8 miles from the city center, Barajas airport is connected to Madrid by line 8 of the modern Madrid Metro.
New York City and U.S. airports, please copy.