Amsterdam: Rediscovering One of the World’s Friendliest Airports

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK SMITH

October 30, 2012

IF YOU’RE A REGULAR to my columns and blogs, you’ve heard me whining about the deficiencies of US airports compared to those overseas.

Pick your spot.  I think of Lyon, France, and its magnificent hall by Santiago Calatrava.  Or Kuala Lumpur with its indoor rainforest. And a hundred places in between.

Europe and Asia aren’t even close; they blow us away.

In South America, it’s hit or miss.  Santiago, Chile, has a beautiful airport, while Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos is ugly and claustrophobic.  Lima has one of the dumpiest airports anywhere.

Africa?  Again it depends.  I’ve already introduced you to the squalor of Dakar’s Leopold Sedar Senghor airport (if you missed it, the story is here), but take a look some time at Bole International, serving the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, home to one of the handsomest terminals in the world.

And so on.

Two airports I’m always going on about are Bangkok, Thailand, and Incheon, Korea.  Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is visually the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. Incheon International, outside of Seoul, isn’t as architecturally grand, but overall it’s the most attractive and flyer-friendly airport I’ve ever been to.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

When you read the frequent flyer surveys, two that always come up are Singapore’s famous Changi, and Amsterdam’s beloved Schiphol Airport.

Both of these always struck me as somewhat overrated.

I was in Singapore earlier this year.  Changi is immaculate, orderly, and well-appointed, sure, with a convenient railway link to the city. There’s a butterfly garden and a swimming pool among other attractions (not all of them in strict keeping with the practical needs of travelers — i.e. the giant and ridiculous tube slide found in Terminal 3).  However, it’s spread over three distinct terminals, not all of which are equally attractive or equally outfitted. And what’s this, having to get an access code at the help desk to access free Wi-Fi?

Tube slide in Terminal 3, Changi Airport, Singapore

Amsterdam, too, I’ve always tended to brush off.

I passed through Schiphol earlier this month, on either end of a weekend trip to Delft, about 30 miles south of Amsterdam.  I’d previously been through Schiphol no fewer than 25 times, on both leisure and work trips.  But this was the first time that I really bothered to linger and check the place out.

And I came away mighty impressed.

There’s nothing visually remarkable about Schiphol. The concourses are crowded and have low ceilings, and the layout is confusing.  But in terms of amenities and flyer-friendliness, I might have to rethink having Incheon at the top of my list.

Where to start?

AMS is the world’s third-busiest international transfer hub, just behind Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle, and thousands of daily passengers face multi-hour layovers between connections. Keeping transit passengers happy is all about time-killing.  To this end, Schiphol’s choice of amenities is amazing.

My favorite are the “quiet areas” — relaxation zones decked out with sofas and easy chairs.  Some are decorated with faux fireplaces.  Others have artistically-inspired chairs with built-in iPads.

Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum has a branch at Schiphol, right there in the main terminal, with no admission charge.  Directly next door is a sit-down library.

For children, the “Kids’ Forest” play area is bigger, brighter, I have to say, just more fun-looking than most municipal playgrounds.

Amsterdam’s hometown carrier, KLM, is the world’s oldest airline, and on the second level, near the meditation room, is a hallway of historical KLM travel posters, showcasing the carrier’s destinations and aircraft over the decades.

The retail options are pretty much endless, and there’s also a full-service grocery store.

If your layover is long enough, there’s a tour desk that sells half-day guided excursions into Amsterdam, with a pick-up and drop-off point just outside the terminal.

For those staying in-country, the railway link into Amsterdam — and to points beyond — couldn’t be simpler.  Tickets can be purchased from kiosks inside the terminal, and the platform is only a short walk away via tunnel and escalator.

And last but not least, that rarest of rarities at airports nowadays, is Schiphol’s popular open-air observation deck, called the Panoramaterras.

Is there anywhere in America that compares?

And Schiphol is pronounced “Skip-hole,” by the way. The second syllable is short and flattened; it’s almost “Skipple.” Definitely not “Shipple,” and definitely not “Sky-pole.”

The in-terminal library at Amsterdam-Schiphol

Schiphol’s relaxation zones have a certain hotel lobby ambiance, but still…

Can I play too?

Now, it goes without saying that while terminal design and passenger friendliness are important, it’s the operational aspects of an airport – the state of its runways, taxiways, and logistical infrastructure — that ultimately matter most.

Indeed, but here too America’s airports fall short, and the situation is, I’m sad to say, getting worse.  Our terminals are dirty and neglected; runways and taxiways are often in disrepair; the aprons are a tangle of beat-up old vehicles and derelict equipment.

Airports Council International president Greg Principato warns that the declining state of its airport infrastructure puts the United States “at risk of being turned into a feeder system for the global aviation network.”

“Other parts of the world are more enlightened in their aviation policies than we are,” said Principato, speaking at a conference in 2012.  He added that members of the U.S. Congress have a poor understanding of how the upkeep and renovation of U.S. airports needs to be funded.  “They have a sense that airports are economically important,” he explained, “but don’t really understand why.”

 

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NORTH LATITUDE
A Short Letter From Amsterdam and Above

Amsterdam, 1991

Limping into Centraal Station, I whisper quietly. “Skip-hole,” I say. “Skipple. Skip-ill.” I’m rehearsing the correct pronunciation of Schiphol, the name of Amsterdam’s airport – 14th busiest in the world, don’t you know — where I’m due to catch a flight in four hours.

It’s mid-summer of and I’ve been up for two days — every hotel, motel, guesthouse and hostel sold-out from Antwerp to Hamburg. I’d taken a pass on a second floor chamber at the Kabul, a Red Light hovel across from a condom store, napping instead at McDonald’s and listening to a seven year-old cassette of Zen Arcade over and over and over. As I enter the lobby, the station hovers above me with its overcooked façade of gables and filigree, like some great medieval fun house.

I’m limping because of a late-night collision with one of Amsterdam’s countless sidewalk posts. The city streets are lined with tens of thousands of knee-high iron bollards. Because they are black, and because they are knee-high, they are sensational invitations for injury. How the Dutch and their swarms of bicycles avoid mass casualties I’ll never know, but distracted by a flaxen blonde pedaling past me on the Leidseplein, I walked straight into one. It got me just below the right kneecap. I could feel the tendons twisting and buckling on impact.

I move slowly and achingly into the station, where, if it’s any consolation, the ticket man seems impressed by my pronunciation efforts. He takes my guilders and smiles.

A half hour later, watching from a second-level airport restaurant, the KLM employees are the easiest to spot in their blue uniforms. Everything about KLM is blue. Even their jets, inside and out, are done up in blue — a two-tone of powder and navy. There’s something soothingly, inexplicably Dutch about it — the pudding shades lifted straight from a Vermeer painting. I look at the ticket counters — at the logo and the aluminum marquee, the stacks of KLM timetables and frequent flyer brochures– and I realize there’s no color red. Try to find an airline that doesn’t have at least one shade of red as part of its identity.

None of that here, just cool Dutch blue. “Shkip-ohl,” I mouth silently. Airport workers on bicycles glide across the polished floor.

Then later I’m asleep, my head on a table and my knee throbbing.

Finally I’m at the counter, and the KLM woman’s badge — the KLM-ers are handling check-in for my Northwest flight — says “Meike,” which I assume is a first name, not a last, but I can’t be sure. Her white hair and milky features seem to go nicely with her blue vest — a perfect picture of efficient Dutch neutrality.

I hand over my pilot credentials: company ID, licenses, medical certificate (“holder must wear corrective lenses”), letting her know I’m entitled to ride along gratis in one of the extra cockpit chairs.

Jetliner cockpits can have many as five seats. Behind the captain and first officer you’ll find one, or often two auxiliary stations, known colloquially as observer seats or “jumpseats.” A jumpseat might unfold in sections or swing out from the wall; or it might be a fixed chair not much different from those of the working crew. They’re occupied by training personnel, FAA staff, off-duty pilots commuting to work, and freeloaders like me. It’s an uncomfortable place to sit, most of the time, though probably not as bad as the middle seat in coach. Certainly the scenery is more interesting, and although pilots are known to whine for extended periods of time, there are no colicky infants. And they’re free.

Or not entirely, as the Meike tells me that I need to pay a departure tax, which is bad news because my knee is all but seized and the payment kiosk is 200 meters away. The distance means nothing to her — the Dutch airport employees simply ride their bicycles through the terminal. As I stagger away, I’m nearly flattened by one.

Next hurdle is a gateside podium where a gangly security man in a cranberry-colored suit is grilling me, making sure I’m not a nutcase or a terrorist. He looks like he belongs at the Avis counter. This is one of those post-Lockerbie things, where you stand at the desk to be peppered with questions about battery operated appliances, the contents of your suitcase, and why you came here in the first place.

If he’s looking at me crookedly, it’s easy to understand why: I am 25 years-old. I have not slept or showered in almost three days, and I can’t walk. And I must convince this officious fellow that I’m an airline pilot deserving of a free ride home.

“You are a pilot?”

“Yes sir.”

“For who?” He asks me this while staring at my ID badge, with its crookedly cropped photo and cellophane tape over the peeled laminate.

“Northwest Airlink. It’s an affiliate of Northwest.”

“What kind of plane do you fly?”

“The Beech 99.”

“The what?”

“It’s a small turboprop.” Embarrassment mixes with exhaustion.

“Small, eh?”

“About the size of a milk truck.”

“Yes, well. And where did you stay in Amsterdam?”

“McDonald’s.”

And so on.

My luck, they are using a 747 today instead of the usual DC-10. It’s one of the old -200s with a three-man crew. Once on board I learn that every last seat is occupied, which means I have to spend the entire eight-hour ride upstairs in the flight deck. Usually the captain will toss you back to a vacant seat in first or business, but this time there aren’t any.

The cockpit on the 747 sits at the forward tip of the upper deck, at such a forward extremity of the giant ship as to feel entirely removed from the rest of it. Possibly, from the crew’s point of view, that disconnect is the ideal arrangement. Pilots fully grasp the gravity of their responsibilities, trust me, but the constant awareness that you’re sitting atop nearly a million pounds of metal, fuel, freight and flesh can be — and how to say this exactly — distracting.  The space is long, but surprisingly narrow and cramped for a plane so massive. Eight or more hours in the forward jumpseat, which does not recline, is the sort of thing that keeps chiropractors in business.

Worse, there’s another traveling pilot with us — he’s a United captain with a Dutch girlfriend, he tells us, who makes the crossing a couple of times monthly on his days off. This means five of us – the captain, first officer, flight engineer, and two jumpseaters, wedged into a room better suited for two.

But still, it’s a 747, that grandest of all jetliners. Despite my exhaustion and junkyard knee, I couldn’t be more elated.

After strapping in, the other freeloader takes out his inflatable neck pillow and is out cold instantly. Propped in his seat, he looks like an unconscious accident victim in a neck brace.

We push exactly on time, and we’re in the air fifteen minutes later.

Out over the Atlantic it seems like the sun has hardly moved. And it hasn’t really, as we race westward, effectively slowing the passage of time. I can read the INS displays as they tick off the degrees of longitude and latitude.

At 20 degrees West the first officer is making a position report over the HF radio. “Shanwick, Shanwick,” he calls, “Northwest zero three niner, position?” He’s got a clipboard full of dot-matrix printout on his left knee and a wedge of apple crumble on the right.

The sunlight is white, oblique and directionless through the glass, like a spotlight from everywhere and nowhere. Outside temp shows minus 59. Celsius or Fahrenheit? It doesn’t matter. Below about minus-40 they are the same.

Naturally, as the spectator, I’m both awed and heartbroken watching the crew at work. An opportunity to sit up front is irresistible, but carries with it a voyeuristic shame. Forgive me, but it’s a bit like watching two strangers having their way with the girl of your dreams. You’re almost there, but the important parts are missing.

We are tracing a long, sub-polar arc toward eventual landfall at a gateway fix near Labrador. They’ve given us the northernmost track, one that will take us to nearly 60 degrees north latitude, practically scraping the glaciered tip of Greenland.

This far north, with clear weather and in the proper season (think April and Titanic), it’s not uncommon to see fields of icebergs drifting below, their wind-sculpted tops discernable from seven miles up.

Today there’s naught but gray ocean, the demarcations west of Greenwich passing invisibly, 60 cold miles at a time.

Which is fine since the view from the forward jumpseat of a 747 is terrible, unless you enjoy meditating on a wall of chipped zinc chromate, or else repeatedly reading the lifejacket instructions embroidered onto the back of the captain’s chair. With all due love for the 747, the better jumpseat was on the old DC-10, where the aft left window extended from head-level to below the shins. You literally had a wall of glass to look through, and during steep approaches or up over the Andes, the seat was worthy of an Imax ticket.

My knee feels to be seizing, so I go for a walk.

I hobble downstairs and all the way rearward, past row 57 and up the other aisle. The plane is full and there’s crap all over the floor. Loitering near the rear galley, where I’ve asked for a Diet Coke, is a young guy in a striped sweater waiting for the lav. He’s a straightlaced sort, maybe a law student or a kid who’d splurged for a bachelor party in Holland. He seems the type who might have a Bulldog Café t-shirt in his luggage, which later he’ll give to his girlfriend who’ll wear it for the rest of the summer on Cape Cod.

He is sweating, I realize. A nervous flyer? All flyers are nervous flyers, whether they admit it or not, but this is more serious. His J. Crew mock turtleneck (eggplant) is starting to blot, and there are wet barbs of hair sticking from his neck. I shift my wait so that I’m leaning against the door sill – my thigh firmly against the flat white shelf where it says DO NOT SIT.

Now the guy is eying me with a raised and quivering eyebrow, probably wondering which will pop open first — the lav so he can relieve himself, or the cabin door, ejecting us both into the frozen tropopause. I should say to him, “Relax dude, I’m an undercover pilot, see?” Maybe flash him my fake-looking ID or a picture of myself in the cockpit of my ridiculous Beech 99.

But I don’t, and instead I put my hand on the big silver handle.

These handles are designed for ease of use, I suppose, but they’ve always struck me as such retro-looking devices, clumsy and cartoonishly oversized. I’m thinking about this and tapping it with my thumb. And now Eggplant J. Crew is on the verge of full-bore conniption, ready to spurt blood from his temples. He fixes an angry gaze on me, his upper lip moist and trembling. Should I dare move the handle, he’s ready to spring.

What Eggplant doesn’t know, and what I choose not to tell him, is that neither of us could open the damn door if we spent all day trying. The doors on the 747, like the doors on most commercial planes, open in before they open out. At cruising altitude, with the cabin pressurized, there are probably 25,000 pounds of air pressure holding that door closed.

After a minute, he can’t take it any more. “Look,” he says, with a detectable tremor in his voice. “Could you please not touch that?”

“Sorry,” I say, pulling my hand back.

I take my Diet Coke and head towards the front again. As I hobble up the aisle, I shoot a quick nod to Eggplant, who seems to be calming down a bit now that I’m leaving. “Take it easy.”

Little does he know this demented, limping person has a seat up front with the drivers.

 

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28 Responses to “Amsterdam: Rediscovering One of the World’s Friendliest Airports”
  1. Patrick,

    Great photos of Schiphol and I especially appreciate the pronouncer. I was never sure how it was said.

    Since you asked, I have a few thoughts:

    The slide at Changi Airport is not for travelers, it is on the landside of the airport and designed to accommodate the Singaporeans who come by the thousands for the amusements, restaurants and shops. When airports begin to see themselves as not just transit points but places so attractive and fun that even the locals choose to visit them, then we’ll start seeing some really fantastic airports. Like Changi.

    With out revealing the details of a story I reported for The New York Times which has not yet been published, let me just say that some folks are getting this message. Because it’s not just nice to make an airport attractive and pleasant it can be profitable too.

    Finally, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport (you are right, it is beautiful) and many other airports in Asia and Europe are multi modal transportation hubs. It is a real shame we don’t have that here in the states and even an optimist like me can’t imagine our political leaders coming up with the will or the finances to change that.

    Always a pleasure to read your posts.
    Christine

    • Patrick says:

      Thanks for reading Christine.

      You write: “When airports begin to see themselves as not just transit points but places so attractive and fun that even the locals choose to visit them, then we’ll start seeing some really fantastic airports. Like Changi. With out revealing the details of a story I reported for The New York Times which has not yet been published, let me just say that some folks are getting this message.”

      That’s good to know. Looking forward to your story.

      The idea of locals visiting the airport makes me think of the old observation deck on the 16th floor of the tower here at Logan. On the weekends, kids and families would come from all around Boston to enjoy the view of the runways and city skyline. More in this essay…

      http://www.askthepilot.com/essaysandstories/logan-redux/

  2. flymike says:

    Don’t forget Augusta, Maine, with its beautiful views of the one runway from the 12 seat lobby. Although there is no food, no restrooms and no counters, it does service the capital city of the state.
    I’ve spent time at AMS and yes, they do put the US to shame – just by the fact that everyone speaks five languages – but when it comes to guns and pickup trucks and ignorance. . . there’s no place like home

  3. Tod says:

    Patrick

    Out of curiosity have you ever been to Australia and if you have what do you think of our airports?
    Secondly in my oppinion the most over rated airport in the world is Frankfurt, terminal 2 is boring as sterile as hell with a horrible confusing layout as well

  4. Roger says:

    Changi’s wifi *really* annoys me. Not only do you have to go to an information desk, hand over your passport and wait while they write fiddly codes on pieces of paper, they have to repeat that for each device you have (guess who has a laptop, tablet and phone). About half the time the codes don’t even work for me anyway. And then just to rub it in, they only work for about 4 hours so you get to repeat this process 3 times on a 10 hour layover. The business class lounges don’t have this nonsense.

    Other than a work program for information desk staff, this really serves no purpose at all other than to inconvenience and annoy travellers.

  5. Hugo says:

    I have been through AMS numerous times in the past twemve years and I have to agree with all what Patrick said. I also found the restrooms there immaculate, no matter the time of day. That being said, and while it is true that, in general, European airports (OSL, MUC, BRU, AMS, ZRH for instance) are superior to American ones, European domestic passengers also have to cope with strange and quite unfriendly places like CDG and FCO. Following the same reasoning, there are a few airports in North American that are worth the visit (YVR, DFW and SEA spring to mind).

  6. Andy Nash says:

    Airports are only the tip of the iceberg regarding infrastructure funding in the USA. It’s amazing that we seem to be unwilling to pay for good roads, airports, mass transit, power lines. etc. and don’t recognize their importance to the economy and the country’s future.

  7. Scott D Allan says:

    I would not expect our poor national showing to change in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, here in the US, airports (like any other symbol of national pride) are no longer in the budget. They don’t have a huge lobby like the drug companies and the military-industrial complex, nor can they vote (like all the social program recipients). There’s no money to demonstrate our national elegance or even functionality, since both have essentially ceased to exist since the JFK assassination and the end of the space race.

    Additionally, as you have so accurately observed, our airlines do not symbolize the people of the US, they are now national cash cows, paying far more in taxes than any other industry.

  8. Piper says:

    I was in Schiphol once, back in 1994. I have two strong memories from the experience. First, fish-dogs. Enough said about that. Second, we landed in Schiphol, coming from Canada. Got off the plane, walked down the jet bridge, followed the crowds down some corridors, outside, and caught a bus into town.

    Wait a second… what just happened? Did we somehow accidentally bypass immigration? Where was the armed thug who was supposed to intimidate us? Where was the interrogation? The cavity search?

    It was a moment of true freedom.

  9. Martin says:

    Having spent way too much time at Schiphol over the years, I can’t get nearly as excited about it as you are, Patrick. Yes, the free museum is a fantastic pause, and the comfy quiet zones are great on a long layover. But… Food choices? Not so much, at least for a vegetarian without a bankroll. Wi-fi? Last time I was there, I remember wandering all over, refreshing my computer, and never successfully logging into the network. Nice clean bathrooms with unadjustable water temperature – forget about sneaking in a shave in the middle of a 36 hour trip, much less a shower as can be done for almost no money in Heathrow (though that’s about the only upside in a Heathrow transit).

    Those are nitpicks about amenities. The real problem is when it comes to airport functions:
    1) Travelers have to pass through a passport control wall when changing between EU and outside flights. This wall is extremely poorly managed. There are always huge lines in either direction, and no helpful staff to help people with tight connections cut the queue. Does it catch the airport by surprise that many large airplanes are arriving to disgorge hundreds of passengers at a time into this stream? It’s entirely a staffing issue, which could be easily resolved by analyzing the number of passengers who are making connections at any given time and assigning an adequate number of screeners accordingly.
    2) NOISE. I can’t think of an airport that has more constant, annoying, and unnecessary announcements. If they aren’t threatening passenger Schmincks to get on his flight to Moscow or they will proceed to offload his luggage, or bleating at the end of every moving sidewalk (audible from a great many gates) to be careful about the dismount, they invent something to yammer about if they haven’t used the PA system for more than 90 seconds. 50% of their announcements could be eliminated if passenger Schmincks wasn’t stuck trying to get through the security wall, half the remaining announcements are totally unnecessary, and many of what’s left could be localized. Getting rid of the announcements would provide a lot more comfort than having a few quiet zones off the main corridor.

  10. Robert says:

    Hi. I wonder when the last time you were in Lima airport. It has become much more modern. Lima has become a much more livable city, boosted by the economic boom of the last two decades. The airport reflects that. You should make a trip back to Lima in the summer, and grab a ceviche by the ocean. bests.

    • Arthur Mpls says:

      Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima has undergone several waves of massive redesign and modernization with German private capital in the past 10 years — it was voted one of the friendliest in Latin America last year. Twenty or 30 years ago, it was dreadful — didn’t even have air bridges for international flights. Much has changed with the significant upswing in the Peruvian economy.

  11. Another Martin says:

    Are they still farming the land between runways, as they did through the 80s when I was last there? The Dutch make something of every square meter of land, perhaps because they’ve fought so hard for it. I’ve seen video from back then of tractors crossing runways to get to the fields. They apparently had to get clearance from the tower for the crossing. Pretty admirable, in my book.

    I just checked Google Earth, and from the May, 2008 image, it doesn’t look like it. All the land seems to be covered in grass. But it also looks like there’s been a lot of commercial development on some of that land.

    At any rate, I thought it was one of the best airports back then.

  12. Andy J says:

    Thanks for another great story, Patrick.

    The next time you’re in Schiphol, will you please retrieve the terrific hat I left on a peg in the men’s room in June 2004? I’d bought it at Marks & Spencer in Stratford-upon-Avon just a couple of weeks earlier and really miss it.

    Thanks,

    Andy

    p.s. My Dutch colleague tells me you have to pronounce the “ch” gutturally, as in Loch Ness. Dutch is designed to stump foreigners….

  13. Mike S says:

    Having spent about 14 hours at Changi two weeks ago, I noticed that although the WiFi code system still exists, there’s also a newer network being put in place which has the common web-based sign-in/ToS screen. It didn’t work for me all the time, but they did specifically say it was still under development.

  14. Thomas says:

    The most charming airport that I have ever used is Koh Samui, Thailand (kind of cheating because it is very small): thatched roof, no walls – open to the elements, a cute conveyer belt for luggage, coconut milk from the cocoa nut that just fell 50 feet away, of course you walk on the tarmac to the plane.

    The most dreary airport I have ever used is Osaka International Airport, it is pristine and completely lacking in any human warmth. Actually hard to imagine how to spend so much money on something that can compete with a black hole for sucking life`s essentials fluids from the soul.

    One of my biggest complaints of American airports is that the bathrooms have no shelves over the urinals to place bags, etc. At best there is a tiny ledge of a few inches that either forehead or free hand gallantly tries to prop up a carry-on from plunging to the swamp below.

    nice to see the comment section back!

  15. Reza says:

    Other great things in Schiphol;
    1- Casino in transit area
    2- Yotel to take a nap/shower
    3- modern nursery for babies

  16. Tom Rodeheaver says:

    Isn’t the fact that the infrastructure in Europe is so much more maintained and people friendly due to the fact that most of the countries in Europe are socialist democracies. They can afford the amenities of a civilized life because everyone contributes. And it ain’t cheap.
    While here in the US, a clean toilet happens once or twice a day because there’s no profit in it.

  17. Roger Wolff says:

    Hey Patrick,
    I was excited to hear you say something about my home country. But then you tell me you were passing through Schiphol because you were travelling to … Delft, where I live. Next time, drop me a line we’ll have a beer, or whatever you like….

    About Schiphol, someone above mentions the lack for places-to-shower, another praises Schiphol for the ability to shower!

    You mention several things about Schiphol I didn’t know they have. So I think you somehow have to know what they have to be able to find it. Of course, I rarely change planes at Schiphol. And when I arrive, I’m always “off to get the luggage and then straight home”. So only in the hour of “margin” between checking in early and boarding do I get to explore Schiphol.

  18. ray says:

    Patrick,

    Your comment

    ‘All flyers are nervous flyers, whether they admit it or not’

    is quite curious. I presume you speak only of passengers here. I take it you yourself and other pilots are not nervous fliers, else you would not be doing what you do. I say this because your writing style is usually not at all generalising or dramatic but rather more measured and balanced.

    Thanks for continuing your forum

    Regards

    Ray

  19. Ari says:

    Despite its faults mentioned above, I’d still rank Schiphol highest – mainly because it’s so easy and logical to get around. Why can’t others design one-terminal airports like that? I hate having to take buses or subways around an airport – those are signs of poor planning (and CDG is the worst here – really, a half hour bus to change planes??).

    I’ve been through Incheon a couple times this year (including yesterday, in fact) and I’ve found it underwhelming. Sure, it’s big and new and airy and relatively benign. But it’s also heartless – just lots of insanely overpriced duty-free (seriously, $26 for a toddler t-shirt??) None of the character like the kids forest or library at Schiphol. Not even any interesting places to eat or drink or shop (Narita wins on that last category). Just soulless chains with $7 coffee or $200 Tom Ford sunglasses.

    Schiphol still wins for me – it’s easy plus interesting.

  20. @Roger Wolff – Schiphol does have showers, but they cost somewhere around 18 Euros, if memory serves. That works on a business expense account, but not when your travel is in the service of a small non-profit.

  21. Sarah Martin says:

    In the past 10 years I’ve flown more than I’ve taken a bus and my home airports have been IAD, Schiphol, and BKK. Schiphol is still hands down my favorite. Never a huge line at immigration and they always seem to be staffed with cute Dutch teenage boys, pretty friendly staff to help at all times, easy to get to, free trolleys for your stuff, and good lounges. I could get to my house in Amsterdam to boarding the plane in 60 minutes tops if I had to. BKK is less convenient but still quite nice. Its one big huge long terminal so you really have to haul ass from one side to the other. I would prefer better food options although the Mango Tree is not so bad for a quick noodle soup before flying but the duty free guys are not honest (goodbye bottle of champagne I purchased for Qatar), and the system of buying trinkets at their shops is unneccessarily complicated. IAD was horrible – dirty, I hate those mobile lounges, and ridiculous. I flew in there this autumn and it seems to have gotten better but I almost killed myself getting from terminal C to terminal A in 30 minutes to catch a flight. The signage was terrible.

    Swing by to have a beer and go to Terminal 21 with me in Bangkok next time you are in town, Patrick! I’d love to talk airport design with you!

  22. Tom Swirly says:

    Gosh, I love Schiphol, and I didn’t know the half of this.

    Amsterdam’s always been one of my favorite places – I recently got married, and my wife seems to like it even more than I do. Arriving at Schiphol I always feel as if I’m free, out from under the TSA and the surveillance state of the United States.

    And of course, when I leave from Schiphol, I’m usually attempting to smoke the remains of my purchases in one huge bang before I go… fly high the friendly skies…

  23. Aisle075 says:

    Until the 19th century what is now Amsterdam International Airport Schiphol was at the bottom of a huge inland lake called the Haarlemmermeer. In a time when sail and horse power were the only ways of moving on water, sailing technique was everything. Yet we were still only slowly learning the art of sailing fore and aft rigged, and as a result we couldn’t really sail into the wind well if at all. The prevailing winds were then as now westerly, and consequently many ships asail on the Haarlemmermeer but poorly sailed or just plain unlucky, ended up at the eastern downwind margin of the lake and there ran aground and decayed. Ship hollow it became called or Schiphol. The Dutch for “Down and Out” is still “Aground downwind” (Aan lagerwal).

    As of 1852, the whole Haarlemmermeer was dammed off, pumped out and turned into dry land. The project was not without opposition, among others from what might today be called environmentalists, but it ran its course and today Schiphol’s magnificent runways and taxiways run through a string of fields some 15 metres below sea level.

    When I came to live here in 1974 Amsterdam was just celebrating the transfer of airport facilities from Schiphol East, the old airfield, to Schiphol Centrum, the new international airport. (It’s now called “Schipol Plaza” to avoid confusing anyone.) Ever important has been the question How to get People There and Thence?. When I arrived here you had to get a bus. A rail tunnel was created, although originally planned for a tram ride from the centre, it was finally awarded to Dutch Railways. In the last couple of years, the rail trip from the centre has suffered from repeated technical failures which probably indicate that the rail tunnel will have to be seriously renovated, rebuilt and perhaps extended.

    But in the meantime don’t let the rail link problems discourage you. After leaving the ambience Patrick describes, just get bus 197 from in front of the main airport exit. It will take you into the heart of Amsterdam. The other way, outwards, if you are leaving Amsterdam, and suddenly problems are announced with the rail connection to Schiphol, don’t take a random taxi, the charges may be exorbitant. Take tram line 17 from in front of Centraal Station to Busstation Marnixstraat and change there to bus 197. The tram conductor can probably point out where you should go.

    Congratulations on the new web site, I wish Ask the Pilot all the best with it.

  24. [...] There aren’t a whole lot of good things to say about US airports in general. They’re noisy, dirty, confusingly laid out, often in poor repair, and sorely lacking in public transport options. We’ve got nothing on the airports in Europe or Asia, many of which are architecturally stunning and jam-packed with amenities. If you’ve ever been to Singapore, Incheon, Munich, or Amsterdam, among many others, you know what I’m talking about. [...]

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