Welcome to Schiphol, the Airport of Quirky Charms


AMS New Kids Area

Update: November 10, 2016

OKAY, HERE’S WHAT IT’S NOT: It’s not Singapore-Changi. It’s not Seoul-Incheon. It’s not sparkly or fancy or architecturally exciting. It’s got bottlenecked corridors, low ceilings, and seemingly endless walks between concourses. And recent construction projects have made the passageways even more congested.

It is, however, clean, efficient and amazingly flyer-friendly.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is the place I’m talking about.

Schiphol has always been one of the top-scoring airports in passenger surveys, something that never made sense to me until recently, when I had a couple of long layovers that gave me time to really explore the place. AMS is the world’s 15th busiest airport overall, and one of the top five for international transfers. Keeping long-haul passengers happy is all about time-killing, and to this end Schiphol’s range 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. Every airport should have some version of this. Noise and crowds are among the biggest stressors that travelers face, and nothing is more welcome than some peaceful corner to relax in. There’s also an in-terminal hotel that rents day rooms.

Schiphol’s relaxation zones have a certain motel lobby ambiance, but still.

Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum has a branch at Schiphol, right there in the terminal, with no admission charge. Directly next door is a sit-down library.

For children, the “Kids’ Forest” play area is bigger, brighter, and I have to say, just more fun-looking than most municipal playgrounds. Or maybe your tyke would rather play pilot in the awesome (if vaguely psychedelic) airplane replica, complete with puffy clouds, pictured at the top of this post.

Schiphol Library

Can I play too?

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.

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. There’s also that rarest of rarities at airports nowadays, an open-air observation deck, called the Panoramaterras. An outdoor deck is maybe not ideal considering the Dutch weather, but it allowed them to install that old KLM Fokker 100 as part of the scenery. You don’t need to be an airplane geek to appreciate the view and a chance for some fresh air.

Schiphol Observation Deck

Down in the central lobby, meanwhile, is one of the coolest airport retails shops around — at least in the eyes of some of us. The Planes Plaza sells plastic and die-cast models, toy airports, airline pins, books, and so on. In the hallway out front there’s an entire forward section of a former KLM DC-9 (open to passers-by, of course), as well as a main landing gear section and engine cowling from a McDonnell Douglas MD-11.

AMS Planes Plaza

AMS Planes Plaza 2

And when the weather is good (an iffy proposition most months of the year), the fun continues outside. This being the Netherlands, the airport’s perimeter is ringed by bicycle paths, one of which leads to Schiphol’s spotterplaats, designated zones adjacent to the runways where airliner enthusiasts gather with their binoculars and cameras — an activity that is all but banned in the U.S. (Airplane spotting is so popular in Holland that Schiphol’s website includes a spotters’ subsection.)

As you can see from the sign below, cyclists can ride from the airport clear into Amsterdam itself. How many big-city airport’s are accessible by bike?

AMS Pathway

AMS Pathway 2

Schiphol is pronounced “Shkip-hole,” by the way. The second syllable is short and flattened; it’s “Shkipple.” It’s not “Shipple,” and it’s definitely not “Shy-pole.”

No, there’s not a butterfly garden or koi ponds like the ones in Singapore, or the soaring ceilings and waterfalls you’ll find elsewhere. But what Amsterdam lacks in flair, it makes up for with a workmanlike functionality and plenty of quirky charms. It’s got something even the biggest and flashiest airports often lack: character.

KLM 777




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, from where in a few hours I’m due to catch a flight home.

It’s midsummer 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. Now the lobby of Centraal 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’s streets are lined with tens of thousands of knee-high iron bollards, the point of which, I think, is to keep cars from parking on the sidewalks (a mission for which they are semi-successful, depending which part of the city you’re in). Because they are black, and because they are knee-high, these bollards are a 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 ambled straight into one. It got me just below the right kneecap. I could feel the tendons twist and buckle.

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 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.

A few seconds later I’m asleep, my head on the greasy 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 pilots you’ll find one, and 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 can be occupied by training personnel, FAA inspectors, 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, it’s free.

Or not entirely, as 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 two-hundred meters away. The distance means nothing to her, the Dutch airport employees simply coast through the terminal on their bikes. As I stagger away, I’m nearly flattened by one.

Next hurdle is a gate-side podium where a gangly security man in a cranberry-colored suit is grilling me, making sure I’m not 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 a bit strangely, 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’m trying to convince this officious fellow that I’m an airline pilot deserving of a free ride home in the cockpit.

“You are a pilot?”

“Yes sir.”

“For who?” The takes my ID badge and fingers it warily. This is still what might be called the old days, and my small-time regional carrier, Northeast Express, isn’t one to take things too seriously. Its employee badges look like something you’d make at home. In fact, they are hand-assembled in a company trailer at the airport in Bangor, Maine. There are no holographs or fancy stamps or bar codes. He looks at my crookedly cropped photo and picks at the cellophane tape I’ve placed over the peeled laminate.

“Northeast Express,” I explain. “Or Northwest Airlink, like it says on our planes. We’re a code-share affiliate of Northwest. They have a hub here.”


“No, Northwest.”

“You work for Northwest?”

“No, I work for Northeast.”


“Northeast Express. We fly feeder routes for Northwest.”

“So is it Northeast or Northwest?”

“It’s both!” I say in a voice a little too chipper.

“Really,” says the guard. “What kind of plane do you fly?”

“The Beech 99.”

“The what?”

“It’s a fifteen-seater. A small turboprop.” Embarrassment mixes with exhaustion.

“Small, eh?”

“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. I love the 747 and savor every chance to ride on one. This time, though, I learn that every last passenger seat is occupied, which means I’ll have to spend the entire eight-hour trip upstairs on cockpit. Usually the captain will toss you back to a vacant seat, hopefully in first or business, but this time there aren’t any.

The cockpit of 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 a constant awareness that you’re sitting atop hundreds of thousands of pounds of metal, fuel, freight and flesh can be — and how to say this exactly — distracting.  The cockpit 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 there are 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’m elated.

After strapping in, the other freeloader takes out his inflatable neck pillow and is sound asleep almost 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, so much, 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 thirty degrees West the first officer is making a position report over the high-frequency radio. “Gander, Gander,” 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. A voice answers back, all reverb and crackly, a thousand miles away. Making a call over HF is a bit like offering up a prayer. You’re calling across some insane distance, hoping that somebody answers, and that they care.

The sunlight is white, oblique and directionless through the glass, like a spotlight from everywhere and nowhere. Outside temp shows minus 59. As the spectator, I’m both awed and heartbroken watching this crew of a 747 at work. An opportunity to sit here is irresistible. It’s like sitting in your favorite team’s dugout during a World Series game. But it carries with it a sort of 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. You can watch but you can’t touch.

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 discernible 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 memorizing the lifejacket instructions embroidered onto the back of the captain’s chair. With all due love for the 747, the better jumpseat is on the old DC-10, where the aft left window extends from head-level to below the shins. You literally have a wall of glass to look through, and during steep approaches, or up over the Andes, the view is worthy of an Imax ticket.

My knee feels like it’s 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. People are asleep or watching the movie. I can’t tell what’s playing. A blurry bulkhead screen shows a distressed young woman crouching behind the fender of a pick-up truck.

I loiter near the rear galley and ask for a Diet Coke. A few feet away, waiting his turn for the lav, is a young guy in a purplish sweater. He strikes me as a straightlaced sort, maybe a law student or a kid who’d splurged for a bachelor party in Holland.

And he’s 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 at the armpits, and wet barbs of hair are sticking from his neck. Is this guy okay?

He’s the guy who in high school played on the hockey team and bullied me around. I’m thinking he’s got a Bulldog Café t-shirt somewhere in his luggage, which later he’ll give to his girlfriend who’ll wear it for the rest of the summer on Cape Cod.

I give him a half nod, then slide sideways towards the emergency exit. I turn and shift my weight so that I’m leaning against the door sill — my thigh held firmly against the boxy portion that contains the escape slide, and where it says DO NOT SIT.

And now the guy is eyeing 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 trailer-made ID or a picture of myself in the cockpit of my ridiculous Beech 99, let him know it’s all gonna be okay.

But I don’t, and instead I put my hand on the big silver handle.

These door 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 a full-bore conniption, his temples visibly throbbing. He fixes an angry gaze on me, his upper lip moist and trembling. Should I dare move that handle, he’s ready to spring, I can tell.

What Eggplant doesn’t know, and what, just for the fun of it, 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 15,000 pounds of air pressure holding that door closed. If I jiggled the handle enough I might get a red light to come on and the pilot upstairs to drop his apple crumble, but the door is not opening.

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 glance at Eggplant, who seems to be calming down now that I’m leaving. “Take it easy.”

Little does he know this demented, limping person has a seat up front with the drivers.


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Remembering Cairo

With Egypt in seemingly continuous turmoil, here’s a photographic toast to one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

June 11, 2015

THE ENDLESS STREAM of dispiriting news from Egypt, topped by this week’s suicide bombing at the Karnak temple in Luxor, has me thinking about my many visits to that country.

My first, in 2002, was a ten-day, small-group tour from Cairo through the Sinai and down along the Red Sea coast. Memories include Saint Catherine’s monastery, the snorkeling at Ras Mohammed, and climbing Mount Sinai at 4:30 in the morning in the company of five thousand Russian pilgrims. Later, before the overthrow of Mubarak and the ensuing chaos, I was fortunate to visit Cairo several more times.

As a rule I’m not much of a cities person — I’ll take the jungles, the mountains, the countryside villages — but this is a special case: Cairo, the de facto capital of the Islamic world, with its countless grand mosques, teeming bazaars and ancient ruins. I have taken more pictures in Cairo than anywhere else; at every turn I was digging out my camera. I’d never call the city “picturesque” — it’s far too hectic and overwhelming for a word like that — but it’s a palette of endless texture and detail, color and commotion. Even without riots and revolution, there is simply so much of everything. The imagery doesn’t stop: the spectacular detailing of a thousand year-old minaret; the ramshackle clutter of the souqs and storefronts; a donkey cart piled with strawberries; women in full cover walking along some back-alley road at sunset.

And lest we forget the Giza Plateau. Sure there are tour buses everywhere, and the spectacle of Ukrainian women tottering through the sand in six-inch heels and miniskirts. But it’s the Pyramids! Sure there’s a Pizza Hut only a few hundred yards from the paws of the Sphinx. But it’s the Sphinx!

To be fair, Cairo is also massively overcrowded, filthy, and draped in heavy smog. Traffic is unmanageable beyond words. There’s little sanitation, and the volume of roadside trash can be staggering; I once saw an impromptu traffic island constructed entirely of garbage. Even the Pyramids are strewn with litter. In summer, with temperatures poking into the triple digits, the noise and fumes become unbearable — the air above the city seems to condense into a superheated, tea-colored broth.

There are nearly twenty million people in greater Cairo. That sounds impossible until you find yourself looking out at the city from the walls of the Citadel or from atop the minaret at Ibn Tulun. Suddenly it is very believable. There is Cairo in every direction — a mammoth, horizon-wide sprawl of concrete and dust and humanity. It’s so densely, suffocatingly packed as to seem almost a single continuous structure — hundreds of thousands of buildings scorch-fused together by the sun.

What to do when it’s all too much? Simple, just head for the world’s greatest restaurant, the inimitable Abou Tarek. Everybody in Cairo, if not in all of Egypt, is familiar with Abou Tarek, a four-story building on a grimy street of tire and muffler shops, just off the eastern end of 6 October Bridge, a few blocks in from the Nile. It’s been there since 1950, founded and (still) owned by Youssef Zaki. Zaki is maybe Cairo’s closest thing to a celebrity chef — a sort of Colonel Sanders of Egyptian fast food, whose portrait stares down at you from the walls. On my last visit, Zaki himself was on the premises, shaking hands.

Walk in, take a seat, and within thirty seconds you’re dining on the restaurant’s sole entree, that most delectable of Egyptian treasures: a steaming bowl of koshary. Koshary is a carbohydrate bomb of noodles, lentils, chickpeas and fried onions, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and however much chili sauce you can handle. All for the equivalent of about $1.50.

You have to feel terrible for the many Egyptians who make their livings through tourism. I think of Abdou, for example, an independent driver and tour guide whom I came to rely on for sightseeing. Abdou was friendly, punctual, spoke good English, and he never overcharged — about as ideal a host as you could hope for. I can only wonder how he’s getting by.



Cairo airport isn’t much to write home about, but I’ve seen worse. Here’s a Royal Jordanian A320 on the CAI tarmac.


What you can’t see in this picture are the hundreds of Ukrainian tourists on all sides of me, including the dozens of women in four-inch heels and miniskirts.


At the back of the main Giza complex, looking toward the desert.


Overview of Giza. If you point your camera in the right direction, Giza looks like it’s the middle of nowhere. But central Cairo is only about 20 minutes away.


Bean cart.


One of my favorite pictures. Typical Cairo street scenery.


Antique souvenirs in a shop in Cairo’s Coptic section.


I can’t remember where exactly this was taken. In the Coptic area somewhere.


Sultan Hassan Mosque, downtown Cairo. The last Shah of Iran is entombed in this building.


Nighttime in the famous Khan el-Khalili


One of my favorite travel photos, this is an overview of the Ibn Tulun mosque. I got this shot after climbing one of the mosque’s minarets (after paying an “entrance fee” to one of the guards).


Rooftop of the same Ibn Tulun.


Rooftop life, central Cairo.


I can’t recall which mosque this is. Does anybody recognize it?


Strawberry cart in the Khan el-Khalili


Dumpster denizen.


Wall and shutters in Cairo’s City of the Dead.


This one more or less speaks for itself.


Then and now. Was it by accident, do you think, that Obama and Khadafy were placed right next to each other. And at the center, of course, the now deposed Hosni Mubarak.


Sunset from Al-Azhar Park


Lastly, the greatest restaurant in the entire world. The inimitable Abou Tarek!

When you’re done looking at the pictures, I hope you’ll click over to YouTube and have a look at my “Twenty-Four Hours in Cairo” video. It’s a mish-mash montage from one of those layovers a few years ago. The best part is right at the beginning, the opening twenty seconds or so where I’ve got the camera out the window of Abdou’s taxi. The sound is what I’m talking about. Blaring above the traffic noise is a sunset call to prayer, which concludes with an amazing echo effect. Then, just as the echo peters out comes this booming, apocalyptic groaning noise. It’ll make your hair stand up. Is it a truck horn? A bus? Whatever it is, it gives me the chills. The whole sequence was recorded more or less by accident, but it’s very dramatic. Play it loud!

I have no idea if Abdou is still doing the tour guide thing, but if you’re headed to Egypt and need somebody to show you around, here is a scan of his business card. I can’t recommend him more highly…

Abdou's Business Card


Portions of this post originally ran on the website Salon.
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Letter From Mumbai

An Afternoon in “Maximum City”


FLYING FROM EUROPE TO INDIA, we pass overhead Odessa, Ukraine. Odessa, they say, is home to the most beautiful women in the world. Then across the Black Sea to Azerbaijan and the gorgeous barren landscapes of Georgia. Next comes the ink-dark Caspian, and then the long desolate outback of northwestern Iran. The controllers down in Tehran are courteous and professional, their English impeccable — easier to understand than most Irish or Scottish controllers.

From there it’s directly overhead the apocalypse of Karachi, followed by a turn southbound, out across the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai.

It’s true about the smell. At ten-thousand feet or so, descending over the city, already you can make out the rank bouquet of urban India: a soupy waft that tastes of putrefaction and exhaust fumes. As if, somewhere below, the world’s largest garbage dump has been set on fire. It’s a smell that burrows into your clothes and your hair and right through the concrete bunker walls of your five-star hotel.

Twenty-four hours downtime.

The concierge hooks me up with young driver named Faiyaz — a most conscientious and law-abiding wheelman with a silver Toyota and remarkably handsome teeth. A hundred US dollars for the day, his services will cost, gas and sporadic commentary included.

It’s monsoon season, and we set out under a nervous, curdled sky. The air has a smell of rotten expectation — like a sink full of dirty dishes.

Maximum City, as Suketu Mehta dubbed it. And I never thought I’d see a metropolis with traffic worse than, say, Cairo or Bangkok. But at least the chaos of Cairo stays more or less in motion. Mumbai’s traffic never has the chance to become chaotic. Every road, highway, backstreet and boulevard exists in a permanent state of gridlock. And all of it four-wheeled and motorized. One misses the cows and three-wheel autorickshaws that jostle for space in other Indian cities. If nothing else, for the Westerner they make for a more curious view — a form of entertainment when you’re cemented into a non-moving column for 45 minutes.

The ten-mile drive to downtown takes almost two hours. Averaged out, that’s a little faster than walking. It’s a long, if morbidly engrossing trip through the city’s most frenetic northern suburbs.

Mumbai isn’t unlike most big cities, I reckon — provided you took that city, layered it under several inches of solid and semi-solid waste, then ran it through a blender. That’s a cheap and nasty description, but looking upon Mumbai is, for me, a pained gaze through layer upon layer of chaos — a noisy, smelly, kaleidoscopic battle between machinery, concrete, garbage and flesh.

From the car I catch sight of a tiny kitten, skinnier than a sparrow, moving nervously along the roadside gutter with a rat hanging limply from its fangs. The miniature, mud-spattered feline is boxed in by an endless stream of vehicles, and is simultaneously being bullied by an impetuous gang of hooded crows. A half dozen of the lead-colored birds are jabbing at the kitten with their deadly black noses.

How does this battle conclude? Who knows. Faiyaz hits the gas and we’re gone, onward to the next little nightmare.

Looking skyward, the air above, I notice, is no less a conglomeration of noise and form, swollen with sooty rain and noisily aflutter with creatures. It’s the crows who dominate, their ranks swollen by a surplus of streetside carrion. There are pigeons too; hawks; the occasional green parrot and a huge, day-flying bat with a wingspan as wide as a seagull.

Finally reaching downtown, Faiyaz navigates down a leafy street to the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya — longtime residence of the country’s most beloved and well-known historical figure. I take in the history of the great scrawny Mahatma as presented through photographs, artifacts (yes, a spinning wheel), and an oddly engaging series of dollhouse-style dioramas.

It’s a self-guided tour, and I’m shadowed at each turn by a family of four, chattering away in Arabic. Their regalia, I can’t help noticing, is in the familiar jeans-and-sportscar style of the upwardly mobile Arab: The man is about 35, stocky and fit, with a pair of expensive sunglasses retracted atop his military-style haircut. He’s wearing dark navy Levis, a leather belt and cell phone holster, and a FERRARI polo shirt. His young son, around 8 or 9, is wearing a FERRARI polo and a FERRARI ball cap. Three paces behind trundles the man’s wife, covered top-to-bottom in a Gulf-style abaya. A miniature daughter in a purple skirt and a plastic princess crown clutches the woman’s hand, chirping along in tow.

Next is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus, the prickly, Gothic Revival wedding cake of a railway station and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The station has a prominent cameo in 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”

And on November 26th that same year, you might recall, two men spent the better part of an hour inside Shivaji firing AK-47s and hurling grenades at commuters, killing 58 of them.

Eight of the attackers’ colleagues had meanwhile scattered elsewhere around South Mumbai and were having a similar night out, shooting and blowing things up at the Oberoi Trident Hotel, the Cama Hospital (for women and children), the Leopold Cafe, a Jewish community center, and, most infamously, at the British Empire’s most luxurious home-away-from-home, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. All together 167 people were murdered in the attacks, and nine of the ten terrorists were shot by police.

Today the reopened Taj, like many big-city hotels, is at least nominally protected by airport-style metal detectors and x-ray belts. I’m not sure what good this does. Inside, there’s no trace of the 60-hour siege that caused $40 million in damages. It’s all rich wood and rich upholstery and rich-looking men bent in hushed, important-sounding conversations. (I’d hardly turn down a night’s stay in the place, but as a tourist destination I prefer the actual Taj Mahal, several hundred miles to the north, in the pandemonium sprawl of Agra.)

Across the street from the Taj sits the Gateway of India, a 90-foot basalt archway and promenade poised at the harbor’s edge. It was here that the Mumbai gunmen had boated ashore from Pakistan, and where, after so much time in the car, I’m eager to go for a stroll.

The problem is parking.

Fiayaz suggests that we use a complimentary space offered by a carpet emporium — a place called All Asian Imports. The catch being that I’ll initially have to go into the store and pretend to be shopping, at least for a minute or two. Then I’ll be free to take my walk along the waterfront. Faiyaz will wait in the car.

This seems a reasonable, if entirely facetious plan, but as I’m pushing through the heavy glass doors I can’t help feeling conspicuous and a bit embarrassed. This just ain’t my kind of place. I’ve bought rugs in foreign countries before — the gouged-up floors of my apartment are concealed by curio-quality kilims from Morocco and Egypt — but the emporium’s nearly conjoined proximity with one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, not to mention its showroom chandelier, ample air conditioning and smartly dressed salespeople, say one thing clearly: there is nothing in here that I can afford.

I’m thinking fast in, fast out, until I’m grabbed hostage by a salesman with brightly polished shoes and a furry black monobrow. I might be an obvious impostor, in my New Balance sneakers and a sweat-stained t-shirt, but for the next half-hour I am in given a theatrical dissertation in the finer points of oriental carpet appraisal. I can’t get a word in edgewise. All escape is blocked.

Of all the things that might possibly happen in this store, my taking out a credit card and purchasing a carpet is beyond the realm of possibility. I’m afraid to let him know that, however. It would be impolite, even a touch hostile, not to feign interest.

So I nod and crinkle my forehead as Monobrow speaks. Nod and crinkle, nod and crinkle, nod and crinkle — the globally recognized expression of “yes, fascinating, tell me more,” as I slowly suffocate from the sheer boredom of it all.

Carpets are everywhere, stacked like logs. Monobrow snaps his finger and an assistant pulls a cylinder from the rack, unfurling it with a crackle. He shows me cotton-on-cotton, silk-on-cotton, then quizzes me on the differences. He rolls out a factory-made Chinese synthetic, laying it next to a sumptuous $5,000 Kashmiri example (something-on-something, with alkaline, or maybe it was non-alkiline dyes). Can I spot the differences?

Maybe. Sort of.

Next example. Then another and another and another. Soon there are several inches of rugs on the floor, slabbed atop each other like sheets of multicolored plywood. Somebody, it strikes me, has to roll them all back up again. Do I look like a wealthy customer, I’m wondering, skeptically. Or is he on to our parking scam and screwing with me, just to keep me from my promenade stroll?

At one point I bend down like a baseball catcher and pinch the fringy corners of several of the offerings, running the material briefly through my fingers in what I imagine to be the gesture a serious carpet-buyer might make.

Did I give myself away?

“Thread count!” Monobrow booms, as if an entire audience had gathered in the room, “is how a fool judges a carpet.” Is that what I was doing in my crouch, counting threads-per-centimeter?

Ditto, I’m informed, about the intricacy of the pattern (which would have been my second guess). No, a rug’s real value comes from the qualities of three and only three things: “Material, dyes, and workmanship.”

He pauses after each of these words, as if it were a quiz and I might fill in the blanks instead of just staring at him.

I cast a glance sideways, through tinted windows and out to the Gateway, where I’m supposed to be enjoying the rest of my afternoon. I curse Faiyaz, who, in case it isn’t obvious by now, has trapped me in here by design, hoping for a commission. The weather, I notice, is looking more ominous than ever.

And it dawns on me that the experience of travel, like the experience of life in general, is made up of too many scenes exactly like this one. That is, long stretches of boredom and squandered time, from which one yearns to escape, only to find his egress obstructed by an instrument of commercial tedium. Like those papyrus store “convenience stops” on the way to Giza or those places near Siem Reap with the rows and rows of buddhas. In this case it’s a long-winded lecture from a carpet merchant.

My means of escape, though, turns out to be simple enough.

“This one is extremely nice,” I say to Monobrow, pointing to whichever rug he happened to have unfurled below me at the moment. “But before we talk about price, my wife will need to see it.”

“Your wife? Of course. Where is she?”

“Across the street, at the Gateway. Let me go and find her and bring her over.”

Suddenly I’m hit by an old, old memory. The first time I ever bought a carpet in a foreign country — or maybe in any country. It was in Kusadasi, Turkey, near the ruins of Ephesus, in 1992. Kirsten, maybe, still has that little rug somewhere. This was before they lopped off all those zeroes from the Turkish lire, and I remember on my credit card statement how the numbers went right off the end of the page.

Monobrow is suspicious, I can tell, as he ought to be. But my excuse is wonderfully bulletproof. “As you wish,” he says.

“She will love the alkaline, non-alkaline cotton-silk non-Chinese dyes of this carpet.”

And with that I’m finally out of there.

As the door closes behind me I feel dirty, guilty, all eyes upon me, like a man slinking out of a whorehouse. I had no business being in there. I’m a kid from Revere, Massachusetts who went to community college. I don’t spend thousands of dollars on deluxe imported carpets, and I don’t feel comfortable in high-end boutiques that smell like jasmine and where the salesmen sip tea out of fancy china.

Again the alienation and failure of travel — the disappointment of finding yourself somewhere different, but not where you hoped to be.

The Gateway looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe and its cousins in Washington Square and Brussels and everywhere else. Except that it’s grander and prettier, with its 16th-century Gujarat styling — at once European and Eastern, Victorian and Mughal.

There’s the crack of thunder. The sky looks like the bottom of a car, rusted and scabbed and ready to wreak havoc on everything beneath it. When the downpour comes the filthy gutters will turn to a brown, clotted stew.

I take my stroll, along past the Taj and to the back side of the Gateway, dark waves lapping at the seawall, occasional raindrops hitting me in the shoulder. I imagine the Mumbai attackers sloshing ashore here, clambering onto the street in their Adidas sneakers and cargo pants, weapons concealed in their satchels and backpacks. All the way from Pakistan they sailed. Travel of another kind.


This story originally appeared in the magazine SALON.


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A Ride on the 787

Boeing’s new jetliner is quiet, sleek, and comfortable. Now, if they could please fix the windows…


December 16, 2012

It’s the pointy end of a spiffy new jet that piques the interest of most pilots. There’s no denying that the 787 has a great-looking cockpit and some fascinating systems architecture. I can’t imagine there’s a pilot out there who wouldn’t want to fly one.

However, I figure the various aviation magazines and websites have the jet’s gizmos and plumbing well-enough covered.  (Plus, I’m protesting the glacially slow progress of cockpit ergonomics.  It’s been how many years, and we still don’t have an FMS or ACARS interface with a QWERTY keyboard?)

So, instead, here’s a critique of the 787 from a passenger’s point of view.  A few weeks ago I was fortunate to catch a ride from Boston to Tokyo-Narita on one of Japan Airlines newly delivered ships.

JAL’s BOS-NRT flights were launched last spring; the first-ever nonstop service between Boston and Asia, and the first scheduled 787 service anywhere in North America.  (United has since taken delivery of its first of several 787s, and Ethiopian Airlines will soon launch the plane on its popular route between Washington-Dulles and Addis Ababa.)

Some impressions…

First, the airport. Call me a hometown cheerleader (I grew up in the Boston area and live there still), but Boston-Logan has to be the one of the most underrated airports in the country. It wasn’t always this way, but following a decade of major renovations, including an expanded Terminal E and the construction of Delta’s Terminal A, Logan has emerged as one of the most modern and functional major airports in North America.  It’s clean, bright, easy to navigate, and who doesn’t love the inter-terminal connector walkways, with their harbor and skyline views, and inlay sea-life mosaics?

JAL’s flight 007 leaves from Terminal E.   When I was a kid, this was called the “John A. Volpe International Terminal,” named after the former Massachusetts governor.  Then, as now, it is the only terminal at the airport with customs and immigration facilities, and it is home to all of Logan’s overseas carriers. Though not exclusively: the cluster of gates at the eastern tip, once the home of Braniff and later Northwest, are today used by AirTran and Southwest.

The building has doubled in size.  The check-in hall is entirely new and arguably the airport’s handsomest spot.  The spacious, wood-panel interior is softly lit and, unlike most US airports, blissfully quiet — free of the incessant PA announcements and infernal CNN monitors that plague most of America’s terminals.  Passing the TSA checkpoint one enters the building’s older section, which is more or less as I remember it from years ago, with lots of gray aluminum and segmented windows staring towards Revere.  Flight 007 left from gate 8, at the far western end.

Somehow the JAL staff managed to begin boarding a fairly full, 13-hour flight only 25 minutes prior to departure, and actually pushed back early.  There wasn’t even a bottleneck in the jetway.  I was in 23A, a window seat in the second row of economy.

The 787 isn’t as large as other long-haul widebodies. I was a surprised by the stubbiness of the cabin.  In terms of range and capacity, the plane falls between the 767 and 777.  But it feels a lot closer to the former, albeit with 777-style overhead bins and a bevy of new accouterments.

Though it can hold up to 300 passengers, JAL uses a roomy, two-class layout, with extended legroom in economy, for a total of only 186 seats — about 20 fewer than the average 767.

The sidewalls and consoles are sculpted in that rounded, organic, vaguely futuristic style that reminds me of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia (think of Eero Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at JFK).  The mid-cabin lavatory is big enough to hold a party in — with cool blue moodlighting to boot.

JAL’s Recaro economy chairs have generous legroom,11-inch video screens (Ethiopian’s are 15 inches!) cup holders, coat hooks, AC power ports and a USB connection.

Despite these goodies, I wondered how many of the passengers had any idea they were riding on the world’s newest and most sophisticated jetliner.  It’s different, but it’s not that different.

If one thing gives it away, it’s the windows.  The 787’s cabin windows are a good 40 percent bigger than normal.  They’re of equal width, but almost double the height of typical windows.  These skinny ovals are perhaps the most distinctively shaped cabin windows since those of the DC-8 or the Caravelle, 45 years ago.

Instead of a traditional draw-down shade, the glass is tinted electronically, with a push-button.  It never fully opaques, and at full tint the effect is a bit like being under water: you can make out certain details, but most of the color and sunlight are filtered away.  The world is rendered in a leaden bluish-gray, similar to the way things look under a very bright full moon.

It’s a nice idea in that you always have a view.  Unfortunately, in direct sun, much of the heat still leeches through, even at maximum tint.  My window pane became painfully hot to the touch, and the radiant heat grew uncomfortable.  At one point I stuck one of the seat-pocket briefing cards into the frame to help stay cool.  When a flight attendant saw this, she came over and gave me a black, self-stick window blotter.  Apparently I’m not the only one to find this bothersome.

In addition, the tinting is not instantaneous.  When the plane banks and suddenly you’ve got the sun bearing down on you, it takes several seconds for the glass to go dark.

All Nippon Airways, the launch customer of the 787, has reportedly complained to Boeing about the heat issue and malfunctioning of the tinting mechanisms. The electronic system struck me as a novelty – technology for the sake of itself — and something that, in the end, isn’t as useful or reliable as the good old manual version.

On the brighter side, as it were, the 787’s cabin is whisper-quiet thanks to advanced insulation and an active noise reduction system.  This makes long flights less fatiguing, saves battery life on your iPod, and makes it easier to hear the movies.  It also amplifies the conversations of your neighbors and the wails of nearby children.

The pressurization and air recirculation systems, meanwhile, are designed to maintain higher humidity levels and lower cabin altitudes than are customary.  (The plane’s composite construction ensures that moisture levels won’t be corrosive.)  These are welcome changes, but after landing at Narita I’m not sure that I felt any less weary or dehydrated than I normally do after a 13-hour journey.

JAL’s onboard service was very good overall, if not quite on the level of other leading airlines from Asia, Europe, or the Middle East.  There were two hot meals and a snack service.  During the in-between hours, a buffet was set up in the mid and rear galleys with snacks and bottled water.  The lavatories were stocked with toothbrushes and other amenities.

One thing that JAL and most other foreign airlines understand better than their US counterparts, is that service is a continuous thing.  Whether it’s premium or economy class, you don’t hand out a meal and then go hide for seven hours.  JAL’s flight attendants made continuous rounds, serving beverages, collecting trash, etc.

There were two hot towel services: one after takeoff and a second one about an hour before landing.  Yes, in economy.

One complaint is that JAL’s inflight entertainment options could use an upgrade.  That big video screen is only useful if there’s something worth watching.  Delta offers a far better choice of movies and TV, even in economy.  Also, the video handset controls are inset into the armrests in such a way that your elbow digs painfully into the well.

But if you ask me, the coolest thing about JAL’s 787 isn’t on the inside, but on the outside.  I’m talking about the airline’s reintroduction of the tsurumaru, the circular red-and-white logo used since 1960.  Possibly the most elegant airline logo ever conceived, it’s a stylized depiction of the crane, lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of the Japanese rising sun.  Beginning in 2002 this ageless symbol was phased out in what had to be the most regrettable makeover in the history of airline identity, replaced by a “rising splotch” – a blood-red blob that evoked pretty much nothing at all.  It was a terrible decision on aesthetic merits alone, and still worse considering the crane’s cultural importance in Japan.  Apparently enough people complained, however, and the tsurumaru has since been resurrected.

Similar to the A380, the lines of the 787 give it a somewhat anthropomorphic profile.  But while the A380 looks like a steroidal beluga, the 787 is a sleeker species. The tail is awkwardly undersized, but those scalloped engine nacelles (for noise reduction; similar to those on the new 747-8) and sharply tapered wingtips are definitely cool.

As for the name, kudos to Boeing for sticking with the numerical sequencing that began 60 years ago with the 707.  However, I’m not especially fond of the “Dreamliner” designation.  Somehow the imagery there is a little too wobbly and ethereal.  People don’t want their planes (or their pilots) nodding off.

It could have been worse.  Initially, before Boeing had settled on a name, Dreamliner was in contention with three other possibilities.  They were: Global Cruiser, Stratoclimber, and eLiner.  Global Cruiser sounds like a yacht, or a really big SUV.  Stratoclimber sounds like an action hero, and eLiner is almost too awful to contemplate — sort of like “iPlane.”

If you haven’t caught a glimpse of the 787 yet, you will soon.  Boeing’s order book stands at more than 800.


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How to Speak Airline: A Glossary For Travelers

Crosscheck? Ramp? Ground stop? Who comes up with these things? Finally, a code to the insufferable jargon of air travel.

THE EXPERIENCE OF AIR TRAVEL IS UNIQUE in that people subject themselves to a long string of mostly anonymous authorities. From the moment you step through the terminal doors, you’re hit with orders — stand here, take your shoes off there, put your seat belt on, do this, put away that — and a flurry of information. Most of it comes not face-to-face, but over a microphone, delivered by employees, seen and unseen, in a tautologically twisted vernacular that binges on jargon, acronyms, and confusing euphemisms.

The ways in which airline workers can bend, twist, and otherwise convolute the English language is nothing if not astonishing. For reasons unknown, it is impossible for a crew member to simply say, for instance: “I am driving my car to work.” Instead, he or she must say, “At this time, I am operating my vehicle to my location of employment.” This stylistic overkill is designed, I think, to get your attention, and to make a particular statement sound extra-important. All it actually does, though, is burden your synapses by forcing them to deal with far more words than they need to. The phrasing is often so strained and heavy-handed that you can almost hear the sentences crying out in pain.

There are people who make dozens of air journeys annually and still have only a vague understanding of many terms. To help, I’ve compiled a glossary, focusing on those expressions most easily misunderstood, or not understood at all. In no special order:



Meaning: Occasionally heard as “disarm your doors and crosscheck,” and announced by the lead flight attendant or purser as a plane approaches the gate. The intent is to verify disarming of the emergency escape slides attached to the doors. When armed, a slide will automatically deploy the instant its door is opened. Disarmed, it needs to be deployed manually. On departure the slides are armed to facilitate an emergency evacuation. (You might hear this as “doors to automatic.”) Upon docking, they’re disarmed to keep them from billowing into the boarding tunnel or onto the apron during servicing.

Crosscheck is a generic term used by pilots and flight attendants meaning that one person has verified the task of another. In the cabin, flight attendants crosscheck one another’s stations to make sure the doors are armed or disarmed as necessary.


• ALL-CALL   “Flight attendants, doors to arrival, crosscheck and all-call.”

Meaning: Often part of the arming/disarming procedure, this is a request that each flight attendant report via intercom from his or her station — a sort of flight attendant conference call.


• LAST MINUTE PAPERWORK   “We’re just finishing up some last minute paperwork and should be underway shortly…”

Meaning: Everything is buttoned up and the flight is ready for pushback. Then comes the wait for “last minute paperwork,” which winds up taking half an hour. Usually it’s something to do with the weight-and-balance record, a revision to the flight plan, or waiting for the maintenance guys to deal with a write-up and get the logbook in order.



Meaning: The cockpit.



Meaning: Second in command on the FLIGHT DECK. The first officer sits on the right and wears three stripes. He or she is fully qualified to operate the aircraft in all stages of flight, including takeoffs and landings, and does so in alternating turns with the captain.


• FLIGHT LEVEL   “We’ve now reached our cruising altitude of flight level three-three-zero. I’ll go ahead and turn off the seat belt sign…”

Meaning: There’s a technical definition of flight level, but I’m not going to bore you with it. Basically this is a fancy way of telling you how many thousands of feet you are above sea level. Just add a couple of zeroes. Flight level three-three zero is 33,000 feet.



Meaning: A racetrack-shaped course flown during weather or traffic delays. Published holding patterns are depicted on aeronautical charts, but one can be improvised almost anywhere.


GROUND STOP   “Sorry folks, but there’s a ground stop on all flights headed south from here.”

Meaning: The point when departures to one or more destination are curtailed by ATC, usually due to a traffic backlog.


• EFC TIME   “Good news, we’ve been given an EFC time of 30 minutes after the hour.”

Meaning: The expect further clearance (EFC) time, sometimes called a release time, is the point at which a crew expects to be set free from a HOLDING PATTERN or exempted from a GROUND STOP.



Meaning: Similar to the EFC TIME, except it refers to the point when a ground-stopped plane is expected to be fully airborne. The crew and ground team must be sure to get the flight boarded and pushed in order to be at or near the runway as close to this time as possible.


• AREA OF WEATHER   “Due to an area of weather over New Jersey, we’ll be turning southbound toward Philadelphia…”

Meaning: This typically means thunderstorms or a zone of heavy precipitation.



Meaning: This is merely colloquial for a transient jolt of turbulence; there is no formal meteorological definition.


• FINAL APPROACH   “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on our final approach into Miami.”

Meaning: For pilots, an airplane is on final approach when it has reached the last, straight-in segment of the landing pattern — that is, aligned with the extended centerline of the runway, requiring no additional turns or maneuvering. Flight attendants speak of final approach on their own more general terms, in reference to the latter portion of the descent.



Meaning: Upright.

• TAMPERING WITH, DISABLING, OR DESTROYING   “Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying a lavatory smoke detector.”

Meaning: Tampering with.



Meaning: Off.


• FLOOR AREA “Please check the floor area for any personal items before deplaning.”

Meaning: The floor. This is a common one from the flight attendants as part of their after-landing spiel. I mean, who talks like this? When you’re at home, do you say, “I need to vacuum the floor area”? Or, “Look at that, Brendan, you’ve spilled cereal all over the floor area!”



Meaning: Deplane is used to describe the opposite of boarding an aircraft. There are those who feel the root “plane” should not be used as a verb, fearing a chain-reaction of abominable copycats. Imagine “decar” for getting out of your car, or “debed” for waking up. In fact, dictionaries date “deplane” to the 1920s, and while it’s not the slickest sounding word, it’s a term of occasional convenience. There aren’t any PA-friendly options with the same useful meaning. “Disembark” is the most elegant one, and it’s clumsy.



Meaning: A deadheading pilot or flight attendant is one repositioning as part of an on-duty assignment. This is not the same as commuting to work or engaging in personal travel.


• EQUIPMENT   “Due to an equipment change, departure for Heathrow is delayed three hours.”

Meaning: An airplane. You might also hear a pilot ask of another pilot, “What equipment are you on?” What he means is, “What kind of plane do you fly?” Yes, I agree, there is something decidedly strange about the refusal to call the focal object of the entire industry by its actual name?



Meaning: Technically, a direct flight is a routing along which the flight number does not change; it has nothing to do with whether the plane stops. This is a carryover from the days when flights between major cities routinely made intermediate stops, sometimes several of them. Most airline staff are smart enough to realize that if a passenger asks if a flight is “direct,” he or she wants to know if it stops, but check the fine print when booking.



Meaning: That’s the one that doesn’t stop.


• GATEHOUSE “If there is a passenger Patrick Smith in the gatehouse, please approach the podium?”

Meaning: An idiosyncratic way of saying the gate area or boarding lounge. Gatehouse has a folksy touch that I really like. They should use it more often.


• PRE-BOARD   “We would now like to pre-board those passengers requiring special assistance.”

Meaning: This one, on the other hand, has no charm. It means to board. Except, to board first.



Meaning: A flamboyant way of telling slow-moving passengers to get their asses in gear. It provides more urgency than just “final call” or “last call.”


• TICKETED AND CONFIRMED PASSENGERS   “We invite all ticketed and confirmed passengers to board through the gate marked five.”

Meaning: Passengers. As if, by not specifying “ticketed and confirmed,” random ticketless people might wander onto the plane.

• MARKED   “…the gate marked five.”

Meaning: As opposed to the gates that have no numbers. Of which, of course, there are none.


• IN RANGE   “The flight has called in range, and we expect to begin boarding in approximately 40 minutes.

Meaning: This is a common GATEHOUSE announcement during delays, when the plane you’re waiting to board hasn’t yet landed. Somewhere around the start of descent, the pilots will send an electronic “in range” message to let everybody know they’ll be arriving shortly. How shortly is tough to tell, as the message is sent prior to any low-altitude sequencing and assumes no inbound taxi congestion. What they’re giving you at the gate is a best-case time for boarding. As a rule of thumb, add twenty minutes.


• RAMP   “We’re sorry, your suitcase was crushed by a 747 out on the ramp.”

Meaning: Ramp refers to the aircraft and ground vehicle movement areas closest to the terminal — the aircraft parking zones and surrounds. In the early days of aviation, many aircraft were amphibious seaplanes or floatplanes. If a plane wasn’t flying, it was either in the water or it was “on the ramp.”


• ALLEY   “It’ll be just a second, folks. We’re waiting for another aircraft to move out of the alley.”

Meaning: A taxiway or passageway between terminals or RAMPS.



Meaning: Similar to RAMP, above, this is basically any expanse of TARMAC that is not a runway or taxiway — i.e. areas where planes park or are otherwise serviced.



Meaning: A portmanteau for “tar-penetration macadam,” a highway surfacing material patented in Britain in 1901. Eventually it came to mean any sort of asphalt or blacktop. You hear it in reference to airports all the time, even though almost no ramp, apron, runway or taxiway is actually surfaced with the stuff. Real tarmac becomes soft in hot weather, and would turn to mush under the wheels of a heavy jet. (I think of Paul Weller’s invocation of “sticky black tarmac” in the gorgeous Jam song “That’s Entertainment!”) Like many words, it has outgrown its specificity, and there are linguistic traditionalists who are bothered by this. I am not one of them.


• AT THIS TIME   “At this time, we ask that you please put away all electronic devices.”

Meaning: Now, or presently. This is air travel’s signature euphemism.


• DO   “We do appreciate you choosing American.” Or, “We do remind you that smoking is not permitted.”

Meaning: An emphatic, otherwise with no grammatical justification. What’s wrong with, “Thank you for choosing American” or “Smoking is not allowed”? People wonder if this is how airline employees talk to one another. “I do love you, Steve, but I cannot marry you at this time.”

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