Get used to the new air travel experience

Arrived back in Amsterdam late morning yesterday on a direct overnight KLM flight from JFK. It was a really great trip to New York even though there was no time at all for anything remotely social. All work and no play.

Some thoughts on that trip from the travel perspective:

– As when I departed Amsterdam last Sunday, I was expecting to see visible and increased security in the departures area at JFK airport. Maybe machine-gun-toting police everywhere such as you see at Heathrow. But none of that. A very normal atmosphere. I would guess that enhanced security was in place but covert.

– KLM has an excellent online check-in system. Flying from the US with KLM, you use partner Northwest Airlines‘ system. I’ve done that before. (One great feature: if you can’t print out your boarding pass, you can enter a fax number and the system will fax your boarding pass to you.) I didn’t have time to check-in online on this trip so did that when I got to JFK using the self-service machines. Big row of them. You swipe your frequent flyer card to retrieve your flight info. Wasn’t working. So you swipe your passport. That took a good half-dozen attempts. I wasn’t the only one having a problem with that. (As an aside, you wouldn’t normally think about the software running those check-in systems. It’s Windows, as I noticed on my last trip where all the terminals were showing a blue screen.)

– With the prohibition on taking liquids of any type on board the plane, I wondered how that would affect one’s purchase of duty-free booze. No affect at all – everything was allowed including liquor, unless you were heading for a UK destination: click the image to see a larger version where you can read the two lines of text at the bottom.

– One benefit from the security: your duty-free purchases were delivered right to the aircraft door rather than to the place before the hand baggage scanning machines, which was a real melee trying to find your stuff.

– Pretty amateur and uncoordinated communication on what to do when you’re at the scanning area. Little signs (looked like print-outs from Word) taped to columns and other places saying to take your shoes off. So everyone did and put them in those big plastic trays. That resulted in loud and constant instructions from the security folk not to do that.

– No cigarette lighters, a restriction that’s been in place for a while. Lots of people didn’t know that, though, including one gent with a very expensive-looking Dunhill lighter who was trying to persuade security to let him keep it. He didn’t succeed.

– Getting through the scanners took quite a while as bags, etc, going through the x-ray machines took a long time as the individual at the monitor spent about three times longer than before in scrutinizing each x-ray image. If I had a geiger counter, I’d guess my stuff would show in the lethal-dose section of the dial! I put my wallet through the scanner, wondering if the increased x-ray exposure would affect the data strips on the credit cards. It didn’t.

– I usually carry a large bottle of water on long flights as do many travelers. Just more convenient than visiting the galley all the time for those tiny plastic glasses of water. So you’d expect the airline to take that into account among the no-liquids restrictions, eg, by offering at least small bottles of water to everyone. They didn’t (in economy class: they do in business class), so that meant people constantly getting up to go and get those little plastic glasses. Airlines need to fix this issue asap if the no-liquids restriction remains in force, which looks a distinct probability.

– Even though KLM is not a US airline, I wondered whether there were any armed sky marshalls on board. Wouldn’t be surprised if there were.

– I always find it hard to sleep properly on overnight flights. Can’t use my computer as it’s just about impossible to open up a laptop when you’re in an economy-class seat, especially if the passenger in front of you reclines his or her seat, even a bit. So I don’t have a guilt trip; I just recognize that limitation and use the time for snoozing, reading or just thinking. I watched a great film: Over The Hedge. If you liked Toy Story, you’ll love this one.

Overall, I think the UK terror scare of a few weeks ago hasn’t really changed much in terms of what you experience going through an airport for a flight to or from the USA. Yes, security clearly has been stepped up but it’s not that obtrusive nor inconvenient (unless you’re in the UK, that is).

But people are very twitchy indeed, as evidenced by the dramatic steps taken by a Northwest Airlines flight yesterday to abort the flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai and return with a Dutch air force fighter escort. That flight landed at Schiphol about 20 minutes after my flight from JFK arrived.

Air travel will never be the same as it was before.