a sign on a glass wall

Wow, what a different experience it was flying back from the USA to Europe, some for the better, others for the worse. For airlines, at least on this flight, the good news was that this 344 seat Boeing 787-10 was pretty darn packed, with 34/38 business class seats taken and around 90% in economy as well.

JFK Terminal 4 was a surreal scene.

Before we take off, if you need to recap the live version of the way out, you can do that here. If you’d like to see some takeaways and suggestions from the way out, you can do that here. And to clarify again, this wasn’t leisure travel, it was essential travel.

a man standing in an airportIt’s one of the three terminals I visit most in my yearly travels, and I just couldn’t believe my eyes with an almost entirely empty security lane and check in area. Even on quiet days, the TSA historically knew how to make that checkpoint a parking lot, but not yesterday. I was processed around the same time as 3-5 or so other people, but walked directly up to the front of the lane to hand over my documents. About that…

a yellow sign in an airportTSA Security

I understand the needs for identity security, but a part of me sighs every time someone touches my boarding pass or ID right now, and I doubt that I’m alone. The TSA wearing gloves does nothing unless they’re cleansing in between travelers, which I didn’t personally observe, not that I had much sample size.

a white airport terminal with a white ceiling and a white signI just feel like we should be able to hold up our ID in close proximity facing the TSA agent, have them shine their lights to confirm the legitimacy and do this sans touch. Just like airport lounge agents or duty free staff can scan your boarding pass from a distance with a barcode reader, I don’t see why we can’t have that as well.

The good news was that otherwise, the TSA did really well. Sanitizing stations were everywhere, though they were only really found after you’d touched the bins and placed your stuff onto trays. I would’ve loved more easily identifiable stations before and after, if I was being picky.

a sign in a airportTerminal 4 Shops Open

Inside the terminal just a few food stores remained open, creating yet another perhaps once in a lifetime view of a world without travel. I’m not sure I’ll ever see T4 so quiet again in my lifetime. As I approached the gate, I did see what looked like a rather large crowd, and I was right. The first starkly different part of this return trip: both flights were almost entirely full.

Compared to the KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam, where the space is lovely but the airline has given up entirely on service, booze, food or anything outside of water, I have to give Delta two Simon Cowell sized thumbs up, with the standing ovation. Hand sanitizers were everywhere as I came up the escalator into the lounge, the lounge agent was behind a screen and I was able to place my boarding pass near the scanner to check in.

a large hall with colorful lanternsDelta Sky Club Still Open

Inside, it was a highly modified, but still a very worthwhile and distinguished lounge service. There was a bartender wearing PPE, happily making drinks for folks, including some premium beverages now available as standard, including Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, a personal favorite. With this night flight, I did abstain.

Better yet, wait staff were on hand to take peoples orders and deliver them on a tray, wearing gloves which I did regularly see cleaned in between orders. This created a real feel of normalcy, and I could tell the few travelers in the lounge were really enjoying that cold glass of wine to settle down and reminisce on better times behind and ahead.

Distancing signs were everywhere and it got even more impressive, or at least well done with the bathrooms.

The bathrooms are such that the main doors can remain open without breaching any privacy, and they’re flung wide open to eliminate that touch point. Once inside it’s just about all hands free with scrubs, single serve paper towels and no touch water sensors. Directly outside the restrooms was yet another hand sanitizing station, which I quickly waved my hands under before departing for my flight.

a group of people standing in a terminalBoarding, Not So Hot…

Boarding was uniquely challenging though, and definitely the worst experience of the four segments.  Unlike my flight from Amsterdam to New York, which had about 50 people on board in total, this flight was rammed, with 34/38 business class seats taken and probably a 90% load in economy too.

The boarding area was an instantly non socially distanced area, but one with people who did seem to take PPE very seriously. I’d say about 8/10 seats on this flight in both cabins were occupied by a Chinese student group, which had full body suits, not far off what surgeons would wear.

As always, people bottleneck as converging lines approach the gate, and the trials for facial recognition were probably ill timed. Worse, they were wasted by agents manually touching boarding cards and telling people to wait, as people struggled to use the machines while being reminded to take off their masks. Yes, it’s hard to do facial recognition with masks on, and telling every person to take theirs off and put it back on is no small feat.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of facial recognition boarding which can speed boarding processes up exponentially, but this was an unqualified failure because of the lag it created, and the redundancy of staff still manually checking boarding passes before guests stepped up to the machines.

Maybe don’t trial that kinda thing when 100% of people on board are wearing  mandated masks, and happy to keep them on? Just a thought. Love the concept, and the future, but now might be the time for simplicity..

a man wearing a mask

I couldn’t tell who the person was representing (airline, airport or government), but another challenge came with boarding, where people were manually boarded one by one. The idea is quite good, being that you let someone make it most of the way to their seat and settled in before you then send more people to jam the aisles, but of course once again a bottleneck was created going back god knows how long.

On Board

Once on board, all the same measures were in place. A clear plastic sack of snacks, coca cola and water and no booze or hot meals loaded onboard whatsoever. Fine by me, but a bit cheeky.

Again, as someone who flies these overnights between the US and Europe regularly, I always go right to sleep and don’t really care, but I am now of the opinion that it would make zero difference at all – other than cost ; ) – in offering some level of premium service for passengers who these days, paid quite a lot to be there.

As is almost always my experience, the KLM crew were wonderful though, and I had a brief chat with a nice crew member before we pushed back and I tucked into the Netflix epic on Jeffrey Epstein. Yikes.

Health declarations for the Netherlands were required to be filled out and shown to gate staff before you were allowed to board this flight, but once again they were not collected. Though mandatory to fill out before boarding we were told they could be asked for at random upon arrival. They weren’t I don’t care if the Netherlands doesn’t want to demand them, but if they do, I’d rather they didn’t waste the effort and resources.

a sign on a glass wallArrival Into The UK

I arrived into Terminal 2 at a time when e-gates were working, and many passed through just fine, though it seemed like more than usual were held up. As passengers walked into the immigration zone, it appears that non invasive temperature checks were being taken while passengers walked through. If you weren’t reading the signs you wouldn’t have known it.

Since the (idiotic) quarantine laws don’t come into place until June 8th, there’s no literature about needs to stay home or a 14 day quarantine which must be adhered, yet.

UK Immigration officers were efficient and kind to those held up by e-gates, and everyone seemed to get processed rather quickly. There may have even been a few jokes between staff about how they too would need to cancel summer holidays, if quarantine plans do take foot.

What an odd, but also somewhat comforting time to fly.

So many things are different if you nitpick, but so much of the air travel experience is exactly the same. You show up, you get a boarding pass, you go through security, take your laptop out, wait around for a bit somewhere, try to kill some time, get on a plane, find something to kill time with again and then leave.

Even though this flight was over 90% full, and I had people seated everywhere around me, I felt much easier this second time through, believing that the masks and hygiene around me would make my chances of any issues far below those of hopping on mass transit in any city. If you added in airport covid-19 testing prior to flight, I’d be a lock to resume travel in a big way, in the near term.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Facial recognition is out of place but who are you to say a health directive quarantine is idiotic? You have a vested interest in people spending money traveling.

    i’d rather not have one but I’m not going to use a platform to say it’s wrong because i am not a health professional.

    1. I really don’t. Plus, people can travel domestically without issue in many parts of the world. I’m hardly the only one calling the 14 day quarantine idiotic. It’s been echoed by virtually every business, travel, economic and other minister in this cabinet. The science doesn’t support it, the numbers don’t support it. The only hope is that it’s posturing for a “job well done” that’ll open more borders for UK travelers later in the year. And that’s the only hope.

  2. My guess is that the vast majority of passengers today are ‘essential’ travellers and take PPE seriously (including yourself). But my concern is when leisure travellers return and don’t have the same respect for the safety of others (e.g. around masks and social distancing) – I think it could make for some pretty uncomfortable travelling but maybe I’m just being paranoid.

    1. I don’t think you’re being paranoid at all. I really do think it’d be great to get some layer of preventative testing, either with a recent clean bill of health or testing at airport to help create some layer of trust among passengers.

  3. Vida Mezcal is the boss. Glad to hear that someone else appreciates it 🙌🏼😂

    Interesting insight too!!

  4. Great read. I’m missing travel so much and have confidence that I’ll be back in the proverbial saddle some time soon. But that facial recognition thing? Seems contra indicated. BTW love the Rugman attire!

  5. as long as masks, gloves, social distancing, PPE etc are mandatory – only “essential” travels should take place – personally I can’t see the point to travel for holidays in such conditions, holidays supposed to be for pleasure; I can understand airlines are desperate to start to fly again but I don’t understand why people are desperate to travel in such conditions? I travel relatively often and love it – but decided to postpone all trips till 2021

  6. In regards to Greg’s reply regarding “health directive quarantine is idiotic? “ Greg I don’t think one has to be a “health professional” to have an opinion on this topic. Common sense says that getting a rapid return test immediately prior to flying is preferable.

  7. Thank you Gilbert for providing us with a first hand account/perspective on airline travel amidst “hopefully” the wind down of the pandemic. I’m sure there are plenty of folks, myself included, who are extremely hesitant to fly even if it is urgent, essential travel and reading your first hand observations gives us all a better picture of what is going on without having to head out into the fray. Your account allows us to make our decisions about doing such a little more informed. Bravo!

  8. I don’t understand the no booze rule. For what you pay for a business class ticket, premium service should still be included. The “safety” excuse airlines are using right now is just to save money.

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