STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK SMITH
UPDATE: April 27, 2015
IF YOU’RE A REGULAR to my columns and blogs, you’ve heard me whining about the deficiencies of U.S. 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, Asia or the Middle East: they blow us away. 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 flyer-friendly airport I’ve ever been to.
But when you read the frequent flyer surveys, two that always come up are Singapore’s famous Changi Airport, and Amsterdam’s beloved Schiphol. 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?
Amsterdam, too, I’ve always tended to brush off. Until recently, that is, when I was passing through at the end of a short trip to Delft. 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 bothered to linger and really check the place out. And I came away impressed. There’s nothing visually remarkable about the place, with its low ceilings and bottlenecked corridors; it’s always crowded and the walk between concourses can seem endless. But in terms of amenities and flyer-friendliness, I might have to rethink having Incheon at the top of my list. AMS is the world’s fourth-busiest international transfer hub, just behind Heathrow, Dubai, and Charles de Gaulle, and thousands of daily passengers face multi-hour layovers between connections. Keeping transit passengers happy is all about time-killing, and 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 are 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?
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. 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.”
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 – 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?”
“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.”
“It’s a small turboprop.” Embarrassment mixes with exhaustion.
“About the size of a milk truck.”
“Yes, well. And where did you stay in Amsterdam?”
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 wet barbs of hair are sticking from his neck. I shift my weight so that I’m leaning against the door sill – my thigh held 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.