a man wearing a face mask

As a quick catch up, I had some essential travel yesterday which sent me from London to Amsterdam and then across the Atlantic to New York. I live blogged the trip as I encountered each stage of airport arrival, security, waiting, transit, shops, on board and immigration, which was a really interesting experience and I think many enjoyed the play by play reaction.

After a good nights sleep – and thankfully one without waking up feeling unwell – I wanted to reflect on a few things from yesterday from different perspectives, rather than just in line with my own personal journey…

a blue airplane parked at an airportForeword

I felt safe, but I can see how others wouldn’t. There are a few things that have been touted as potentially going into effect, that I now do think should become standard.

The conversation of if you “should” travel – today, right now – is a non starter because governments where most of you are reading this from are advising against all but essential travel. But in a matter of a few short weeks, plans to change that are on the cards as borders reopen across Europe, and perhaps the United States soon thereafter too.

When it’s advisable to travel, it’s a question of whether people will, and where and how they’ll go. I wanted to run down the journey yesterday in a broader lens, focusing not on a few specifics of my trip, recommendations and zooming out to how I’d feel in different cabins, settings…

The Airport Experience

I want to say from the bottom of my heart, that I felt extremely safe in the airport yesterday. Safer than my local supermarket even. People all kept distances and wore masks, which can’t be said in many places on the ground. The mandatory rules for these things made a meaningful difference in confidence and I support them as long as is needed to get this dreadful virus behind us.

I did experience some seriously contrasting airport experiences yesterday though, and I recognize the challenges but also feel like I saw things that both positively and negatively impacted my trip. Feel free to jump to whatever you’re interested in…

a large building with many windowsLondon Heathrow Airport

Heathrow was deserted, with only Boots pharmacy open. With flights condensed to just a couple terminals, in retrospect, I would’ve thought the airport could’ve done something to ask a few businesses to stay open to support the travel experience.

I didn’t think of this until I saw how happy and comforted I was at Amsterdam Schipol, with open shops to pop into and things to buy. People are killing time, and with no lounges open, shops arguably have a more captive audience. Plus, numbers aren’t nearly as low as you’d think. There were still hundreds of people in the terminal, probably thousands.

Schipol made it all feel like some sort of normal, rather than an airport with the lights turned off. Heathrow did a great job with sanitizing stations, but I saw lots of Heathrow Airport staff standing around, who could’ve perhaps been used to help enforce and encourage boarding policies or spacing around the airport.

I completely recognize that boarding is under airline control and the agencies that represent airlines, but the thing is that the queues spill into general hallways, which then becomes a Heathrow thing. I’m not suggesting airport staff scan your boarding pass, but with so many people on duty, and seemingly without a whole lot to do, I think a better effort to have roaming teams ensuring safety would’ve made a difference.

One point many people were interested in was bathrooms, and I can say that they were very clean, but there was no one enforcing max in, max out rules or proactively cleaning. All the new hands free efforts from toilet paper to washing hands are excellent though.

Short Haul Flying Within Europe

Minus being the idiot who selected an aisle seat in the front of the plane, I felt really good on the short hop to Amsterdam and think anyone of good health, low risk and with a will to travel should feel some solid level of confidence in doing so, when it’s allowed again. With everyone wearing masks, a key form of transmission is curbed and people seemed to really keep to themselves.

My suggestions are the same they’ve always been: try not to touch anything that isn’t yours, bring your own headphones and phone or tablet to amuse yourself and keep your hands on your body. For a short jaunt like this, knowing how good the air filters are I really wasn’t even remotely worried about it all.

I had someone seated next to me with one seat in between us, so only about 2 feet between us at most, but he kept to himself. If he had been seated directly next to me, I still don’t think it would’ve made a difference in my opinion, but I’d limit that opinion to shorter flights, which I guess is sort of the issue topic.

Even wearing masks, the KLM crew were upbeat and positive and being greeted at the door like every other passenger brought back familiar memories of times before all of this. I can totally see how European travel will rebound, with the caveat that everyone wear masks, and extra efforts are made to provide cleaning cloths, etc. I’d totally do this again the week travel opens.

a large white building with a marble floor and a group of peopleAmsterdam Schipol Airport

Amsterdam was a really interesting experience for me. After filling out the mandatory health form, I was surprised that no one collected it or took my temperature. For transit, I don’t necessarily think that sort of thing moves the needle, but if you’re going to have people do it, you might as well collect it. In a way, it almost creates a layer of confidence in itself. If not, just don’t bother.

But immediately after, Amsterdam Schipol made me much happier than Heathrow. I can’t imagine Gucci is selling too many items with the dwindling passenger numbers, but there were still plenty of people traveling. Having the shops in the central corridor really made me feel like the good things about travel were still there. There was an Amsterdam food stall with all the good cheeses open, a tulip shop, and plenty of high end retail.

For a passenger without lounge access, it felt like a really reasonable place to kill time and other than masks and signs to stay apart, it didn’t feel a single bit different than travel did months ago before this all started. That was such an odd comfort, in its own special way and I’m very grateful for whatever efforts were made to encourage most shops to remain open. Staff seemed to actually be loving it.

Flying Long Haul On A Transatlantic Flight

This is where my reflection really set in overnight.

I’d do this trip again in business class, as I just did, without hesitation. Modern business class seats have so much in the way of privacy that you’d hardly know anyone was around. But that’s an insane privilege and not one everyone can enjoy. In economy, I’m not sure if I’d honestly feel the same for a long flight, and that’s more down to the little details of what transpires on a long flight.

As an aside, there was a young family with an infant on the flight in economy and they seemed to manage just fine. It made me miss my family immensely. I have big respect for them for managing with masks and keeping a young one happy all the way through to arrival.

As the situation stands, with planes more than half empty it’s no big deal in economy, since everyone has space, but on a full transatlantic flight wearing a mask, it’s going to get fidgety. Let’s just hope this virus slowly continues wiping itself out, because each day it does will make tight seats feel less like putting yourself at risk.

I will say that the best part of the mask is that it’s (at least to me) less of a bother when you’re just sitting and relaxing than it is when you’re walking and or talking. But even then, after the 7 hour mark on a flight those elastic straps on your ears become a bit of a pain and… yeah.

Going forward into the new world of air travel, I think the issue is a new onus falls on the airlines to have staff really proactively work the lavs to make sure there’s access to sanitizers. That’s never going to be an easy sell to cabin crew, but some airlines have already found great solutions.

Even in business class with four people in the cabin, I cringed as I opened the door to the bathroom, and again to close. I sanitized my hands each time, but as critical mass grows you’re only as good as your weakest link and in economy that may become a “thing”. I definitely welcome Emirates move to add bathroom attendants to flights.

For the “new normal” I’d take a diminished proverbial ‘snap your fingers’ style service in any cabin to one where a member of the team, or a new member of the team is basically just on rolling wipe down duty of any shared surfaces.

Crossing An Immigration Border

I was quite impressed with the US handling of things on arrival, even if its not 100% effective. To any realist, nothing is right now. Having someone take everyone’s temperature on the jet bridge and collect passenger info via the forms, with multiple layers of observers felt like it could stop at least one case. If that’s the case, it could be all the difference in a community.

What I really want…

Personally, I’d really like for some burden to fall on the passenger to produce a clean bill of health before flight, in the form of a recent test result before they’re allowed to board, to add an additional layer of “I don’t need to panic that the person next to me is a carrier”. In an ideal world, a near instant cheek swab could be taken at the airport prior to check in, but for now, anyone wanting to travel would find this a fair compromise, hopefully.

Of course, again, this doesn’t solve everything, but it creates real layers of comfort, confidence and safety. I think we can all agree those would be nice right now, because we need airlines, and they need us.


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. I’m glad to hear you had an overall good experience! One thing I’m curious about is why you didn’t fly nonstop LHR-JFK? I’d imagine people nowadays would prefer to fly nonstop.

    1. Hey Joey, simple one really. There’s presently (this week) only one non stop flight between NY and London (so sad) and it’s BA. I had a Virgin/SkyTeam ticket from a trip that was cancelled for about a month ago, and the flex policy since I didn’t ask for a refund allows rebooking for any date (no fare diff, fees charged) up until Nov 2020.

      1. Wow! It’s unbelievable to think there used to be so many flights between NYC and London every single day and nowadays there is only one flight nonstop each week. Glad you arrived here safely! Be safe.

  2. The number of shops open at LHR is probably limited by the UKs ‘non-essential shops aren’t allowed to be open rule’. Hopefully this will change as lock-down restrictions are lifted next month.

  3. One thing to think about with testing at the airport is that there are a fair amount of false negatives and false positives With the fast test so until tests have been improved it would give people a false sense of safety and also may send someone home that is not truly positive.

    1. Kat, I think the overall takeaway is that nothing is a guarantee, but every layer of security is a positive if it moves the needle. This style wouldn’t stop everyone, but it could solve a lot of problems.

  4. How did you manage to get into the states knowing that there’s this travel ban issued by the government of the usa?

  5. The clean bill of health idea is a great one but many places, including my area, make it very tough to get a test without specific authorization by a doctor.

    1. I’d really like it to become a global airport thing ASAP, as testing speed and quality improves. Quick swab at check in, contact details and yank before boarding if bad result or something along those lines.

  6. Good recap and glad it went well. One thing I would like to comment on –

    You asked if people “should” travel now. The examples you gave of why it isn’t even possible in many cases were international flights. Within the US you can travel to all states w no problem (a few do have quarantine requirements). I see people saying travel should only be for things that are absolutely necessary and am fine if they take that position. However to shame people who elect to fly for pleasure now that the states are opening up really bothers me. Casinos are now opening and I plan to fly to open in the next few weeks. Mainly this is to Check out the experience as I make plans for the rest of 2020.

    Yes I am getting on a plane for pleasure and there is some level of risk. However states need visitors for their economic recovery and airlines need passengers so hopefully there are many like me that are willing to take the chance based on overall risk assessment (which we do on many other things every day). I take precautions with hygiene, distancing and masks (even though I HATE wearing one) so consider the overall experience low risk. I fully understand if others have a different opinion and you are free to act as you feel best but don’t try and shame people that decide to travel. In my case I could really care less and actually enjoy that upsets you so bad.

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