Welcome to Schiphol, the Airport of Quirky Charms

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK SMITH

KLM 777

December 15, 2015

HERE’S WHAT IT’S NOT: It’s not Singapore-Changi. It’s not Seoul-Incheon. It’s not sparkly or fancy or architecturally exciting, with its bottlenecked corridors and low ceilings and seemingly endless walks between concourses. And recent construction projects have made the passageways even more congested.

It is, however, clean, efficient and amazingly flyer-friendly.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is the place I’m talking about.

Schiphol has always been one of the top-scoring airports in passenger surveys, something that never made sense to me until recently, when I had a couple of long layovers that gave me time to really explore the place. AMS is the world’s 15th busiest airport overall, and one of the top five for international transfers. Keeping long-haul passengers happy is all about time-killing, and to this end Schiphol’s range 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. Every airport should have some version of this. Noise and crowds are among the biggest stressors that travelers face, and nothing is more welcome than some peaceful corner to relax in. There’s also an in-terminal hotel that rents day rooms.

Schiphol’s relaxation zones have a certain motel lobby ambiance, but still.

Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum has a branch at Schiphol, right there in the 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.

Schiphol Library

Can I play too?

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 are purchased from kiosks inside the terminal, and the platform is only a short walk away via tunnel and escalator.

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. There’s also that rarest of rarities at airports nowadays, an open-air observation deck, called the Panoramaterras. Down in the central lobby, meanwhile, is one of the coolest airport retails shops around — at least in the eyes of some of us. The Planes Plaza sells plastic and die-cast models, toy airports, airline pins, books, and so on. There’s an entire forward section of a former KLM DC-9 (open to passers-by, of course), as well as a main landing gear section and engine cowling from a McDonnell Douglas MD-11.

AMS Planes Plaza

AMS Planes Plaza 2

And when the weather is good (an iffy proposition most months of the year), the fun continues outside. This being the Netherlands, the airport’s perimeter is ringed by bicycle paths, one of which leads to Schiphol’s spotterplaats, designated zones adjacent to the runways where airliner enthusiasts gather with their binoculars and cameras — an activity that is all but banned in the U.S. (Airplane spotting is so popular in Holland that Schiphol’s website includes a spotters’ subsection.)

As you can see from the sign below, cyclists can ride from the airport clear into Amsterdam itself. I dare you to name another big-city airport accessible by bike.

AMS Pathway

AMS Pathway 2

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

No, there’s not a butterfly garden or koi ponds like the ones in Singapore, or the soaring ceilings and waterfalls you’ll find elsewhere. But what Amsterdam lacks in flair, it makes up for with a workmanlike functionality and plenty of quirky charms. It’s got something even the biggest and flashiest airports often lack: character.

 
 

NORTH LATITUDE

LETTER FROM 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, from where in a few hours I’m due to catch a flight home.

It’s midsummer 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. Now the lobby of Centraal 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’s streets are lined with tens of thousands of knee-high iron bollards, the point of which, I think, is to keep cars from parking on the sidewalks (a mission for which they are semi-successful, depending which part of the city you’re in). Because they are black, and because they are knee-high, these bollards are a 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 ambled straight into one. It got me just below the right kneecap. I could feel the tendons twist and buckle.

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 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.

A few seconds later I’m asleep, my head on the greasy 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 pilots you’ll find one, and 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 can be occupied by training personnel, FAA inspectors, 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, it’s free.

Or not entirely, as 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 two-hundred meters away. The distance means nothing to her, the Dutch airport employees simply coast through the terminal on their bikes. As I stagger away, I’m nearly flattened by one.

Next hurdle is a gate-side podium where a gangly security man in a cranberry-colored suit is grilling me, making sure I’m not 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 a bit strangely, 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’m trying to convince this officious fellow that I’m an airline pilot deserving of a free ride home in the cockpit.

“You are a pilot?”

“Yes sir.”

“For who?” The takes my ID badge and fingers it warily. This is still what might be called the old days, and my small-time regional carrier, Northeast Express, isn’t one to take things too seriously. Its employee badges look like something you’d make at home. In fact, they are hand-assembled in a company trailer at the airport in Bangor, Maine. There are no holographs or fancy stamps or bar codes. He looks at my crookedly cropped photo and picks at the cellophane tape I’ve placed over the peeled laminate.

“Northeast Express,” I explain. “Or Northwest Airlink, like it says on our planes. We’re a code-share affiliate of Northwest. They have a hub here.”

“Northeast?”

“No, Northwest.”

“You work for Northwest?”

“No, I work for Northeast.”

“But…”

“Northeast Express. We fly feeder routes for Northwest.”

“So is it Northeast or Northwest?”

“It’s both!” I say in a voice a little too chipper.

“Really,” says the guard. “What kind of plane do you fly?”

“The Beech 99.”

“The what?”

“It’s a fifteen-seater. 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. I love the 747 and savor every chance to ride on one. This time, though, I learn that every last passenger seat is occupied, which means I’ll have to spend the entire eight-hour trip upstairs on cockpit. Usually the captain will toss you back to a vacant seat, hopefully in first or business, but this time there aren’t any.

The cockpit of 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 a constant awareness that you’re sitting atop hundreds of thousands of pounds of metal, fuel, freight and flesh can be — and how to say this exactly — distracting.  The cockpit 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 there are 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’m elated.

After strapping in, the other freeloader takes out his inflatable neck pillow and is sound asleep almost 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, so much, 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 thirty degrees West the first officer is making a position report over the high-frequency radio. “Gander, Gander,” 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. A voice answers back, all reverb and crackly, a thousand miles away. Making a call over HF is a bit like offering up a prayer. You’re calling across some insane distance, hoping that somebody answers, and that they care.

The sunlight is white, oblique and directionless through the glass, like a spotlight from everywhere and nowhere. Outside temp shows minus 59. As the spectator, I’m both awed and heartbroken watching this crew of a 747 at work. An opportunity to sit here is irresistible. It’s like sitting in your favorite team’s dugout during a World Series game. But it carries with it a sort of 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. You can watch but you can’t touch.

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 discernible 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 memorizing the lifejacket instructions embroidered onto the back of the captain’s chair. With all due love for the 747, the better jumpseat is on the old DC-10, where the aft left window extends from head-level to below the shins. You literally have a wall of glass to look through, and during steep approaches, or up over the Andes, the view is worthy of an Imax ticket.

My knee feels like it’s 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. People are asleep or watching the movie. I can’t tell what’s playing. A blurry bulkhead screen shows a distressed young woman crouching behind the fender of a pick-up truck.

I loiter near the rear galley and ask for a Diet Coke. A few feet away, waiting his turn for the lav, is a young guy in a purplish sweater. He strikes me as a straightlaced sort, maybe a law student or a kid who’d splurged for a bachelor party in Holland.

And he’s 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 at the armpits, and wet barbs of hair are sticking from his neck. Is this guy okay?

He’s the guy who in high school played on the hockey team and bullied me around. I’m thinking he’s got a Bulldog Café t-shirt somewhere in his luggage, which later he’ll give to his girlfriend who’ll wear it for the rest of the summer on Cape Cod.

I give him a half nod, then slide sideways towards the emergency exit. I turn and shift my weight so that I’m leaning against the door sill — my thigh held firmly against the boxy portion that contains the escape slide, and where it says DO NOT SIT.

And now the guy is eyeing 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 trailer-made ID or a picture of myself in the cockpit of my ridiculous Beech 99, let him know it’s all gonna be okay.

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

These door 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 a full-bore conniption, his temples visibly throbbing. He fixes an angry gaze on me, his upper lip moist and trembling. Should I dare move that handle, he’s ready to spring, I can tell.

What Eggplant doesn’t know, and what, just for the fun of it, 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 15,000 pounds of air pressure holding that door closed. If I jiggled the handle enough I might get a red light to come on and the pilot upstairs to drop his apple crumble, but the door is not opening.

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 glance at Eggplant, who seems to be calming down now that I’m leaving. “Take it easy.”

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

 

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll love the book.

 

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52 Responses to “Welcome to Schiphol, the Airport of Quirky Charms”
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  1. Tom Zimmermann says:

    I like the fact that you make an effort with pronunciation. Many English-speaking people don’t..

    As an (amateur) photographer I get really irritated when people pronounce Nikon as ‘Nhai-khawn’ when in fact is a Japanese word pronounced ‘Nic-on’…

    Sigh..

  2. Ali L. says:

    Is no one else disturbed that the frustration of a small-plane pilot at not being able to fly a 747 is compared to watching two men rape a woman you’re wild about – and not being able to have sex with her yourself?

    That’s not just lazy writing, Patrick, but a deeply disturbing and misogynistic analogy to make. There are so many other analogies you could have used – a kid with no money looking at all the other kids inside the candy store gorging on sweets, for example. A hockey player with a broken leg watching their team win the championship game without them. A kid laid up in the hospital all summer watching the town carnival through the window and seeing all their friends riding the roller coaster. There’s three of the top of my head, and none of them reduced a woman to literally being a sex object for two men to “have their way with” – and that’s not even the part that upsets you, but the fact that you don’t get to have sex with her yourself.

    Also disturbing is the fact that no other commenter found that bit at all notable. And that one man thinks it’s so funny that he can’t wait to use it in conversation himself.

    If you’ve ever wondered what “rape culture” is, well, this is it. Rape is not a joke, and the example of a woman being sexually assaulted by two men is not something to use as a glib analogy for wishing you could get to fly a bigger plane.

    You can do better, Patrick.

  3. Eric Rudolph says:

    Shud have read “20th Ave. is uncongested”

  4. Eric Rudolph says:

    Fun piece about a great city and a cool airport, but there is at least one major US airport that is bike able… NYCs dreaded LaGuardia (LGA).
    Adventurous cyclists flying in/out of LGA w/ a bike could easily bike there from most areas of NYC, really easily from Manhattan. It is a short run w/ many bike lane options. Check online bike lane maps. 20th Ave. way north is uncontested.
    Of course, we’re not saying it is anything like a bike-friendly place like Amsterdam or Portland, OR., but it can be done! As for parking your bike at LGA, well…

  5. ere says:

    Love the KLM Crown Lounge too — nothing like champagne at 7am after an EX-US flight. And the “Deep rest” sleeping room rocks!

  6. UncleStu says:

    “like watching two strangers having their way with the girl of your dreams. You’re almost there, but the important parts are missing. You can watch but you can’t touch.”

    I’m glad my mouth was empty because it would have been the end of me.

    Now, all I have to do is find a way to use it in a conversation.

  7. Bill M. says:

    Great post…. AMS is one of my favorite. How can you not love an airport that has a giant 6 pack of beer on the roof?

    https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4104/4965632644_0ebe0b6ce8_b.jpg

  8. Bob H says:

    Well, it would seem we have had similar experiences, in a way.
    I flew for Altair Airlines and started as a Be-99 pilot, moved on to the Nord-262′ then went to Amsterdam for 3 months to train to fly the Fokker F-28, which I did get a type rating in,
    My days in Amsterdam were lots of fun for myself and the 7 other trainees who were with me.
    I did fly on KLM to and from JFK and during the cross over the Atlantic, I was invited to the flight deck and I to was amazed at how tight it was up there on the 747-200.
    Also there was only a curtain between the cockpit and the passengers !

  9. Kevin says:

    You forgot the old Cityhopper Fokker 100 that sits up on the panoramaterass. You can go inside and they have a little exhibition about the history of Fokker.

    The little Fokkers are much more pleasant as museum exhibits than to fly in, I’m looking forward to the last of them being replaced by Embraers.

  10. Rhonda says:

    Traveled through AMS last month in my first ever international trip. Agree with all you said here, and wanted to add that I loved that the flight arrival/departure/gate info boards included an estimate of how long you’d need to walk to your desired gate. This is a lovely touch, and given that some gates are 30 minutes walking away from others, very much needed. Other airports should take note.

    • Siegfried says:

      These little info terminals are AMAZING. You just hold your boarding card under a scanner and it will give you every information needed for your next connection: Terminal, Gate, the way to get there, the time it takes to walk there and the status.

      I have no idea why Schiphol is the only one to have them.

  11. Ian says:

    Wow. Perhaps it is because I have never had to time to explore or spend more than a couple of hours there to transfer but I have always found Schiphol to be congested, noisy and confusing [e.g. the last time there was only seating at the gate for about half the passengers boarding and barely enough room for those left standing. This after 30 to 45 minutes waiting in line to be screened again at the entrance to the gate waiting area- there were two scanners but the second one was for first class only and spent long periods of time unused].”Dog’s breakfast” comes to mind. KLM should have the phrase “Thank you for your patience” as their logo. Makes me long for Changi.

    • DorkRothko says:

      This is my gripe with Schiphol, too. I don’t know whether it’s at the request of the US or because of the underwear avenger, but when transferring through, back to the US, the otherwise nice experience of the airport is ruined by the second security screening and the overcrowded pen you’re forced to stew in. The last time I did this there were enough seats for probably 10% of the people, the security screeners took my bag apart and frisked me, and then my fellow passengers mistook boarding for a rugby tryout. So, for me, flying back through Schiphol is to be avoided at all costs, even though it’s an otherwise fine airport.

  12. Tom says:

    One correction:
    Below about -40, F and C are NOT the same. At -40, F=C. F continues on down, as does C, but the two temperatures are not the same.

  13. Melb says:

    Our little city with a big attititude, Portland, is very bike accessible. There a plenty of bike racks at PDX. Lots of employees get there on bike. My nutty neighbor rode her cargo bike full of kids and luggage for a flight some time ago.

    Oh, and like Amsterdam, you can take a quick train ride into the city and get legally-high (prostitution is not legal, but our old port-of-call legacy allows us to claim more strip clubs per capita than any town in America).

  14. Anonymous says:

    Zurich airport has a cool observation deck.

    It is only a 10 minute train ride from the downtown train station.

  15. Bill Combs says:

    Two years ago, I was on my way to Warsaw, thence Tbilisi, and entirely without my prescription medicine. I connected through Schiphol, asked if there happened to be a pharmacy in the airport, and ten minutes later I had a week-long replacement supply of my meds in hand. For about $8 American.

    This really is an impressive airport…

  16. Carl Nelson says:

    I do know of one other major city airport that is accessible by pedestrians and bikes. Washington-Reagan connects directly to the Mount Vernon Trail, an 18 mile paved pathway going from Rosslyn to Mount Vernon. When I’ve stayed in Crystal City, I’ve often been a very short walk from DCA to the many hotels in the area. DC itself is quickly accessible on bike via Arlington Memorial Bridge or Key Bridge. It’s definitely one of those things you have to know about, though–finding the proper exit from the airport to the path takes some sleuthing.

    The Mount Vernon Trail also passes through Gravelly Point, at the north end of the DCA runways, and that’s a fantastic place to plane-watch. Heading towards Key Bridge and Theodore Roosevelt Island gives very good views of planes doing the “Potomac Shuffle” as they make a 50-degree turn to Runway 19 at less than 500 feet. (One of my favorite approaches!) The south side of the trail gives some great views of planes on short final gliding above the Potomac.

  17. John O'D says:

    And if you have some time to kill in the springtime, hop on the shuttle bus to the Keukenhof gardens to see the marvellous tulip displays.

  18. Alastair says:

    I used to live in Amsterdam and one way to pass the time on a nice sunny day was to cycle out to Schiphol to visit the viewing terrace. I still love the airport, though the building work is making it more of a pain than it usually is. The bike ride was a little under an hour to the city centre and almost entirely off-road. You even have your own dedicated bike tunnel under the runway.

    Someone else has commented about the at-gate security which was a major nuisance for all the reasons given. They’ve put it back to a central location now, which makes life easier.

    As for pronunciation, you need to be able to manage a Dutch ‘ch’ sound (like the Scottish version but more guttural) to get s-ch-ip-ol. Easy enough once you get the hang of it.

  19. Ruben says:

    Outstanding airport. Very nice!

  20. M. Sukkel says:

    Stop worrying about pronunciation. Everybody will understand if one says ‘skiphol’. The airport area used to be a lake. The down wind part of the lake is where a ship ‘schip” went haywire ‘hol’.

  21. John says:

    In my limited travels abroad I found Schipoli to be the most impressive so far. Unfortunately I was just using the KLM city hopper so I’m sure I missed the most impressive parts, especially the art gallery. The one thing I did find odd though was the security screening being at the departure gate. While American airports are a clustered zoo farm in front of security choke points (pun intended) I arrive early enough that I can navigate them and then have time to relax before boarding. In Amsterdam my confused American brain actually thought there might be no security at all until seeing the baggage screeners inside the glassed off gate. It made it hard to relax not knowing when the procedure would start so I never left the gate to check out the rest of the concourse. Again maybe this was a city hopper thing but at least I know next time what to expect.

    I agree with the part in your book that compares the back of American airports to the back of shopping malls. Lots of tan cement and brown painted metal…gross. My home town airport of Long Beach had a recent renovation and it looks fantastic. The boarding has always taken place via stairs, but instead of a zig zagging walk through plastic tape and orange cones they have built a modern glass and wood concourse that runs in front of the parked planes.

    Worst intl airport so far; Galeão International Airport in Rio de Janeiro. With an intl terminal under construction but nowhere near complete (sorry World Cup) there was a single long hall with one duty free and one long lined food kiosk. Clearing customs took two hours and baggage claim is a swarming ant hill of confusion. To anyone who has never been there it looks like one big mess but there is actually a snaking line running through the entire area with no lanes or visible help. The only thing directing you is the ocassional Portuguese cursing if you somehow find yourself accidentally cutting in the invisible line. To top it off it’s also the worst place to plane watch. They have a interlocking maze of permenant ramps that lead to and from the airplanes. They completely block out most planes from any line of site in the terminal. All that said once you get out of the airport Rio is one of the most magical cities in the world. The view from Sugarloaf Mountain makes up for the airport as you get to watch
    plane after plane take of from Santos Dumont making a hard left turn to avoid the mountain you’re standing on.

    Special nod to Narita and their magical toilets

  22. 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.

  23. 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…

  24. 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!

  25. @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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. Reza says:

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

  31. 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!

  32. 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.

  33. 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….

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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).

  41. 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.

  42. 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

  43. 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

  44. 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/