Hello, and welcome to this live travel blog of my journey flying from London to the USA via Amsterdam during covid-19. I’m absolutely not traveling for leisure, but rather out of necessity and the purpose of this blog is to demystify what it’s actually like out there right now, amid varying reports of how borders, airlines and health checks are being carried out.
This page will be updated throughout the day in chronological order, with a variety of photos, videos and other means of explaining or showcasing the journey. I’ll do my best to stay connected via wifi, and will try and get the answers to any journey related questions you may have from airport security to everything else. Just drop them in the comments..
As somewhat expected, I arrived to a virtual ghost town at Heathrow Terminal 2, at least from the passenger drop off area. It’s eerily quiet here, but there’s actually a very steady flow of passengers. To help encourage social distancing, only passengers are allowed in the terminal, with clear roped off markings to limit the flow into the check in area.
Even in covid-19, you can still expect to queue, for a bit. Due to so many entry restrictions, it seems quite hard to check in for an international flight online, and the gents next to me were being quizzed about their papers as oil and gas workers, needing to provide certificates to venture to their destination. I had a swift and easy check in experience.
Heathrow has done a fantastic job with their operation, and in many ways this was one of the more pleasant airport security experiences I’ve ever had. Social distancing and sanitizing initiatives are everywhere…
- Before grabbing a clear plastic bag, there are auto dispensers for hand cleansers. It was the perfect dose to scrub my hands and then dry up without needing to touch anything.
- Plastic bags were laid perfectly so I was able to touch one, without touching another.
- Everyone was wearing masks, staff included as were constant reminders to keep distance.
- On the floor, markers for where feet should go helped people from drifting in security lanes.
- Shoes off, laptops out, all the standard stuff for most travelers and I was through in minutes.
In many ways, with the focus on sanitizing everything, and the orderly nature of distancing people and general calm of passengers, this was almost surreal, as one of the more pleasant airport security experiences a general traveler will encounter. When travel is advised on a non essential basis again, I hope some of these principles remain in the future.
9:00AM BST: The Closed And Empty Terminal
Terminal 2, where many Heathrow flights have been condensed – is a virtual ghost town, at least when it comes to shops, but that’s to be expected. Boots pharmacy remains open with a person enforcing maximum guests at a time, and people are grabbing essentials for their journey.
At least as far as I can see, lounges and all other shops, restaurants or even coffee spots are closed. With all passengers relaxing in the same area, it’s fairly busy along the seating areas, but mostly just because you need to find out at least three seats away.
There’s something comforting about seeing a steady flow of arrivals and departures though. A Singapore Air crew just came through, and despite their masks, their uniforms are as glamorous and inspired as ever. Ah, the joys of Singapore – one day again, for sure.
My first boarding of this two leg journey was an interesting look at the challenges of air travel right now.
With two lanes open, people naturally did eventually end up less than two meters (6ft) apart as they approached the gate, but with everyone wearing masks and sanitizing stations around I wasn’t overly bothered. It really is all about the masks right now, at least to me, and I was really reassured to see people felt the same.
Boarding was in many ways like it always was. A semi orderly queue, a few DYKWIA a-holes trying to cut to the front – who wants to sit on a plane a minute longer than you need to right now?! – and people generally did their best to adhere to sensible measures.
10:15AM BST: On Board Part One
Some travel “pro” I am 😔. Though I waited to be among the last to board, I quickly remembered why it’s good to think more clearly about seating assignments.
After swapping flights, I forgot to move to a window seat, and quickly learned why they’re advantageous in the current flying world. A few people brushed past in close proximity, but ultimately it wasn’t a big deal. Just look into your phone and try not to notice. If I could do it again though, I’d have a window seat in a heartbeat.
The KLM crew was fantastic, calming and chipper and were clearly true pros, reciting pre-flight briefings from memory, albeit briefly reading from the card with the updated “remove your personal mask before placing the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth, if one drops down during emergency”.
11:30AM CEST: Arrived For Transit In Amsterdam
I’ve arrived in Amsterdam after an entirely uneventful flight KLM flight, which makes it an excellent one.
Once the wheels were up, it felt nothing but normal, whether it should’ve or not. On arrival in Amsterdam, transit passengers such as myself must stay airside, but there were no temperature checks that I saw whatsoever. I had proactively filled out the mandatory health form stating no symptoms and such, but it has not been collected as stated.
Some rather serious looking securities guys welcomed the plane and looked at passengers, but that was about it. What a difference between Heathrow and Amsterdam Schipol though, where at least in the central area between main terminals at Schipol it’s the definition of business as usual. Masks and signs are everywhere, but for pretty much everything else, it was the best of the airport as you knew it before with open doors and smiling people.
From a virtually abandoned T2 at Heathrow, I arrived here to see duty free open, as well as virtually every other shop from high end luxury retail to Netherlands food gifts, with people in them too! I’m a huge Tony’s Chocolate fan, so I grabbed enough to last me until I arrive in the USA.
Nvmd, it’s like business as usual here… pic.twitter.com/FmuU49wBcC
— Gilbert Ott | GSTP ✈️🌴🌏 (@godsavethepoint) May 25, 2020
I’m not expecting much on board, even in business class, nor do I want the interaction at the moment, even if things are offered. Schipol was a fun airport to transit before it started, and this picture above sums up the transit experience for any passenger right now. It may look like an airport lounge, but it’s just a fun seating area near the mini Rijksmuseum.
13:00 CEST KLM Crown Lounge Is Open And Appreciated
Let me be super clear here: there’s enough space in the terminal for anyone to sit comfortably for a while, and the picture above does that plenty of justice. Nonetheless, I was curious to see if the KLM Crown Lounge in the non Schengen are would be open, and indeed it was.
This is a beautiful space with comfy couches, chairs and quiet allowing me to write this blog, and I’m very grateful. I’m flying business class because of the flexibility policy afforded to me from a trip we did not take an on a Virgin Atlantic ticket earlier in this year, which I was able to exchange without any fare difference or fees for travel any time before November 2020.
13:15 CEST: The Mask! FAQ ‘s From A Few Readers
I wanted to take a quick second to address a few questions so far on Twitter and across social. First, the mask! I bought this on Etsy from a small business and it’s got four folds and room for a filter, which in this case is a v60 coffee filter. I wish it smelled like coffee.
Whether it’s doing anything to keep things out, I don’t know, but it must be. I believe a major misconception with masks though is it’s mostly about keeping your germs from circulating, not keeping others out, though both are good right now. It feels mostly normal after a couple hours of wear, minus trying to walk and talk, which requires mouth breathing. That requires a swimmers lungs, but for normal things I haven’t felt particularly odd.
I guess if I was traveling with someone, I’d feel a bit more perplexed about having regular conversations through the mask, but so far everyone hears me just fine, and any chats are kept short and distant with anyone along the way. Anyway, off to the gate. Will be curious to see if the US is doing any pre-flight screening, as it often does for other security concerns…
Boarding was good here in Amsterdam and other than a few stragglers who seemed to be traveling together, everyone did their part. I can’t tell you enough, minus the masks and constant signs to stay apart, how normal and just like old times this felt.
The gate announcements are mostly the same, the unorganized passengers are still exactly that, the people watching is still great. It’s just the airport, with a few new accessories and some extra worries.
If I had to nitpick, it just makes me wish the mobile tech revolution with airlines was already further ahead, so I wouldn’t need an agent to touch my boarding pass, but with everyone wearing gloves and wiping often, it’s not a huge deal. I believe a reason for lack of mobile boarding passes at the moment is around entry restrictions, and airlines needs to confirm, in person, who can and cannot board a flight.
All this talk of airlines struggling with fewer passengers, yeah, it’s real.
There’s four people in business class on a plane capable of 38. I’m very glad for the space and seclusion though. I’ll definitely take a walk down to the economy cabin once boarding is complete to get a gist of numbers, but they’re certainly nowhere near capacity on this beautiful plane.
One thing I found interesting is that with 10 rows and 4 passengers, the crew politely asked all business passengers to swap over to the right hand side of the cabin after take off, so that they could keep the other aisle open for cabin crew to move without disturbing us, or breaking social distancing where possible. It makes a lot of sense.
There’s always been a divide among business class travelers, with some loving every element of service, drinks and culinary offerings, and others who say it’s all about the seat, comfort, connectivity and on flights like these… sleep.
Right now, it’s pretty much the latter or bust. KLM has a cute little sandwich and snack pack laid out, alongside signature Delft Gin houses, but that’s the extent of things today. I certainly don’t mind. I’m just really glad the Delft houses are still a thing, because they just make me want to visit Amsterdam when it’s advisable again.
1500 CEST: We’re Rolling And There’s A USA Health Form…
We’re now off and bound for the USA, with a short taxi for takeoff. I’ll be offline for a bit while we get airborne, but since boarding we’ve been handed a US health form. Seems fairly straightforward, but as someone still holding the health form the Netherlands had everyone fill out, I will be curious to see if this one is ever collected.
There’s lots of debate around the validity or usefulness of such forms which is above my pay grade, but I do think if you’re going to have someone fill one out, at least collect it. If not, I’m just not sure I see the point.
Here’s the health declaration the US has put on board. Will they be collected? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/PogJ1EhfCp
— Gilbert Ott | GSTP ✈️🌴🌏 (@godsavethepoint) May 25, 2020
For now, I just want to reiterate that this was not a leisure trip for amusement, but rather one out of necessity.
I’m not suggesting anyone fly right now if they don’t need to, but I must say I was really pleasantly surprised to see just how normal and reasonable it all felt, and more importantly – will feel when travel is allowed to return as governments ease restrictions.
Most importantly – I felt just as safe, if not safer than I do in my local areas like supermarkets on the ground. I’ve always felt safer in planes than cars, which is statistically true too, but I think having these sterilized constantly sprayed and monitored areas really creates a layer of safety and security even many commutes cannot compete with.
Just a quick check in from the flight deck (I wish). For those wondering about how travel is now, and how it will be in the future, I can certify that once on board, the big battle is still finding something entertaining to watch. In an effort to minimize touch points, which is something I’ve done for years, I am self catering my IFE today with my own tablet. WWYD?
I can’t think of anything particularly interesting about the experience at this point until we’re on the ground in the USA, so it’ll be quiet here unless someone in the comments here or on social media wants to see anything. I took a look in economy and it seems like people are well spaced out, relatively, and going about the flight like anyone normally would. I’m cautiously optimistic here.
18:56 CEST: I Can Now Confirm A Few Things About Service
There isn’t any. So, at least in my opinion, travel right now isn’t at all about the service but that doesn’t mean people aren’t curious. I’ve had quite a few questions about the offerings during this circa 7.5 hour business class flight, and in short, there is no service, even in business class.
On arrival to my seat I found a clear plastic bag with a bottle of water, two diet cokes, a couple tangerines, two stroopwaffles, a cheese sandwich, some snack mix, an almond cookie sort of thing, a little slice of cheese and a couple mini chocolates. Pretty sure that was it.
The big one though for many – no booze, at least on KLM for the moment. Arguments could be made about whether airlines are going a step too far with cut costs, since handing someone a beer is the same as handing them a water, but it’s honestly not something I care about right now, nor a single percentage factor. I had a brief interaction with a crew member making the rounds and got an extra bottle of water, but that’s it, for now.
If you’ve got a question, throw it in the comments, or join the convo on Twitter.
The Grand Finale: Crossing The US Border At JFK
Landing at JFK was a treat to see my home airport in sunny glory. The moment was all too brief, seeing T4, a places I usually see humming, virtually at a standstill. It was a stark reminder of just how dire the situation the situation is at present. But onto immigration.
I was first off the plane, but before anyone deplaned, a CDC official came on and told the crew 10 passengers at a time, and that health declarations must be visible and ready. The official was flanked by a variety of masked CBP and other officials, and about 20 paces later, I encountered someone from a NY health agency (I believe) who took my temperature up close. “Good, no fever” he said, before handing me a yellow card.
From there, it was incredible standard. I proceeded to the Global Entry lane, slid my passport in, and then pressed the prompt which allowed me to press “when” the picture should be taken. I quickly dropped my mask down for the photo, and replaced it right away. I walked a few feet more and presented my receipt to the US Customs and Border Patrol official behind the plexiglass screen who asked me a brief question, and sent me on my way.
All in all, probably five minutes from the time I left the plane to hitting the curb, but mostly only because I was first off. With spacing of 10 passengers at a time, a new series of challenges emerge for passengers coming off long flights, but for now, it’s absolutely worth it.
Reflections From A Day Later
After a good nights sleep, and the good fortune of not waking up feeling ill, I wanted to reflect a bit more from a general perspective of the good, the bad and the things I’d like to see changed before travel does widely resume to most people. You can read those thoughts here.