Heathrow Or Frankfurt: Two Of The World’s Worst Airports?

Air travel can be a tribulation anywhere but traveling through the world’s mega-airports is never high on my list of fun things to do. Last week, I spent some time at Heathrow (in London) and at Frankfurt International airport – two of the world’s dozen busiest, and some would say best-avoided, airports. These temples of transit require travelers to demonstrate the patience of Job, the endurance of an ultra-marathon runner and a good sense of humor to roll with the inevitable hassles. But which airport is best avoided if you are transiting through Europe and have options – Heathrow or Frankfurt Airport?

I lived in the Balkans for a spell several years ago when I was in the Foreign Service, and the government would frequently route us through Frankfurt, which was rated the 11th busiest airport in the world last year, with just over 57 million passengers transiting it in 2012. Our usual rule of thumb was that if the layover time was less than two hours, we knew the chances of making the onward flight was about 50-50 if it was in the 60- to 90-minute range. Less than an hour? No chance, particularly if you checked bags and hoped to see them again.I do not enjoy flying. My preferred modes of transport are, in this order: train, boat, bike, car, plane and bus. And so, when my plane touches down on a runway after a long flight, I can’t wait to get off the plane. In Frankfurt, though, one can taxi for so long that it seems as though the pilot might be planning to drop you off in Salzburg. Planes taxi for what seems like forever and then you often have to schlep your things onto a bus and then shuttle into the terminal.

But I like to people watch at airports and on this score, Frankfurt is awfully good. There are mysterious looking women in niqabs and burkas; flashy-tracksuit wearing Russian mafiosos and their showy girlfriends, weighed down in gaudy jewelry and shopping bags; Africans in colorful robes carrying enormous plastic bags and suitcases sealed tight in cellophane wrapping; beer guzzling Germans and their worldly dogs; and plenty of backpackers about to wash back up on their parent’s doorsteps after spending their last rupees on a bag of mushrooms and Tibetan prayer flags in Katmandu.

I had a full two-hour layover in Frankfurt last week, en route from Chicago to London, but I just barely made my connection. (This was the only way I could redeem miles to get to London during Wimbledon.) In fairness, the flight touched down 15 minutes late and we taxied for an eternity, so I wasn’t in the terminal for two hours, but I felt like I walked about 5 miles and stood in I don’t know how many lines before I got to my gate just after boarding had begun for my connecting flight. I was soaked in sweat from hauling all my gear and suffering from that putrid, exhausted feeling you have after a sleepless night on a transatlantic flight.

Frankfurt has good rail links and some reasonably appealing shopping and dining options but it’s the kind of place where you want to allow a huge amount of time. And think twice about hauling a lot of carry-on baggage there.

I’ve traveled in and out of Heathrow, the world’s third busiest airport in 2012 with some 70 million passengers, many times over the years and I have just two nice things to say about it: you can access it via London’s tube and there are plenty of bookstores and newsstands. I wasn’t sure what terminal my flight was in and there are three tube stops – one for terminal 1, 2 and 3; and one each for terminals 4; and 5. I played the odds and got out at the 1/2/3 stop at 1:15 p.m. for a 3:30 p.m. flight.

I booked the flight with United and it had a UA flight number, so I followed the signs to terminal 1. It was about a 15-minute walk, made unpleasant for me only because I was hauling too much stuff, but alas, it turned out that I was on an Air Canada codeshare, and the Canucks are based in terminal 3. After another 15-minute walk, I was thrilled to walk right up to the counter and secure my boarding pass with no wait.

But my luck ran out going through security. I’ve been in longer lines before – much longer ones, in fact – but perhaps never a slower one. I can’t tell you precisely how long I was in line, because I wasn’t wearing a watch and was carrying a broken iPhone, but I think it took a good hour. My backpack was singled out for a search but there were three other bags to be inspected by one laconic young South Asian woman who moved as fast as one might walk down a gang-plank toward some waiting crocodiles.

Once I was deemed not to be a militant jihadist or suicidal crackpot, there was another long walk in store and then another line to, get this, approach the gate area. After showing our passports and boarding passes, we rounded the corner and joined another line to do the exact same thing again. And then I was stuck in the gate waiting area with no access to shops or restaurants. A fellow passenger told me it was 3:10, very nearly two hours after I’d stepped off the tube, and the business class passengers had already boarded our flight to Montreal. It was a 60-degree day but my shirt was soaked with perspiration. Travel can be an ordeal at times, and little did I know at that point that I still had a two-hour delay in Montreal in store, plus a nearly hour-long line to get a cab in Chicago.

The verdict? CNN rated Heathrow the third most hated airport in the world, behind just Paris-Charles de Gaulle and LAX on their list of 10 most hated airports, but left Frankfurt off the top 10. I’m with them; I’ll take Frankfurt over Heathrow but it’s close. Let’s say I would avoid Heathrow like the plague, whereas I’d only avoid Frankfurt like a curable venereal disease.

10 Ways To Keep The Seat Next To You Empty

I’m not an anti-social traveler. In fact, I love to meet new people when I’m traveling. But when I find myself sitting on an airplane with the seat next to me open, I tend to get a little nervous wondering who is going to come and occupy the middle seat next to me.

On most airlines, I feel OK about looking to see who is coming down the aisle, because if they’re assigned to the seat next to me, they’re going to sit there, whether they like the looks of me or not. But when I fly Southwest, and other airlines that have open seating, I find myself strategizing on how best to preserve my extra space.

On a short flight, the stakes are low, but on a long flight, the difference between having an open seat next to you and having a size XXL traveler plop down beside you can be huge. And in fairness, it isn’t just large people you don’t want next to you. The overly chatty, the obnoxious, and the malodorous can be even worse. On Thursday, I traveled on Southwest from Chicago to Los Angeles, a 4.5-hour flight (if it’s on time), and, with most of the passengers already on board, I still had an open middle seat next to my aisle.

I know it’s horrible and selfish, but as the few remaining stragglers made their way down the aisle, a small voice inside me was pleading, please, please, please don’t sit next to me. My brain quickly ran through the different strategies that one might employ in order to preserve the extra space.

Spread Your Stuff Out

It rarely works, but who hasn’t put their reading material or other stuff on the seat next to them to make it seem as though the seat might be occupied? Admit it, you’ve done this before.

Make The Center Seat Seem Even Smaller Than It is

Put the armrest up, spread your legs out and make that center seat look as small and unappealing as possible.

Look Busy

It’s a longshot, but if you’re working on a laptop positioned on the tray table, some passersby might be so polite that they’ll chose another middle seat rather than make you get up and reposition with a computer in tow. (Or you can talk on the phone, but I’ve never stooped to that level because it’s an annoyance to everyone in the vicinity.)

Look Crazy

There are plenty of different ways to do this – you can stare, you can let your eyes roll around towards the back of your head, let your tongue hang out of your mouth, drool a bit perhaps. Just watch “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” if you need some suggestions. If you really want to take this one the extra mile, wear a T-shirt with an aggressively anti-social slogan on it. Something like, “I worship Satan” might do the trick.

Give Off God Vibes

Have a bible out and before the person even asks if the seat next to you is free, ask them if they’ve accepted the Lord, Jesus Christ as Their Savior.

Give Off Skunky Vibes

You probably don’t want to avoid showering for days before your flight but you can carry a bag with some smelly cheese, durian or some other food that smells awful.

Carry Depends or Have a Barf Bag Cocked and Ready to Go

Would you sit next to someone that had a box of Depends undergarments on their lap? What about someone who was hyperventilating and clutching a barf bag?

Gangsta-rap or Richard Marx at Full Blast

I guarantee you that if you are blasting Richard Marx’s “I Will Be Right Here Waiting For You” or NWA’s “F**ck the Police” into a pair of oversized headphones, people will think twice about sidling up next to you. 2 Live Cru’s “Me So Horny” Or the Devinyl’s “I Touch Myself” could work for most men, but might serve the opposite purpose if women try it.

Court A Skinny Passerby

If it’s a relatively full flight and I’m resigned to the fact that someone is going to sit next to me, I might make the effort to smile at people that I think would make good seat mates. Sometimes, if they’re looking at the seat next to me, I’ll go one step further and invite them to sit down. Alternately, when I see someone who I really do not want to sit next to me coming down the aisle, my heart starts beating faster and I begin to employ any and all of the tactics mentioned above.

Sometimes I’ve already spotted people I don’t want to sit next to before I’ve even boarded the flight, such as the individual in the photo at the top of this post, who I encountered on Thursday. It wasn’t just the fact that he was quite large but also the fact that he looked like he might break my neck or cast some kind of satanic curse on me if I happened to brush his elbow by accident. When I saw him sit in a middle seat next to someone a few rows in front of me, I was ready to pop open a bottle of Champagne. I’m sure he’s a great guy but I just didn’t want to sit next to him (sue me).

Don’t Make Eye Contact

This was the tactic I tried on my recent Southwest flight. My head was buried in a newspaper, even though I was too nervous about who was going to sit next to me to do anything more than run my eyes across the words without really digesting what was on the page.

On this occasion, the tactic didn’t work. I heard a voice ask if the seat next to me was occupied and I looked up to see, who else but an attractive and petite woman of perhaps 25. An ideal seat mate if there ever was one. The truth is that I enjoyed chatting with her and the woman in the window seat and the trip was, in fact, a good reminder that trying to repel people isn’t always the best idea.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara and Skley on Flickr]

Airline Travel Made Less Painful By Using A Travel Agent

Airline travel would seem pretty straightforward at first glance. We know we need a ticket from point A to point B, when we can fly, what airlines we prefer, what we would like that ticket to cost and when we are prepared to pay for it. The challenge comes from matching what we want to what is available. As airlines continue to cut available seating worldwide, choices are more limited than ever, making that perfect match more difficult. Adding in seemingly secret factors that consumers rarely come in contact have savvy buyers considering using the services of a travel agent again.

When it comes to finding anything even close to resembling a budget airline ticket for travel to holiday events, knowing when to buy, when to fly and what discounts and special offers are available is key.

“Many airlines compete with each other to have the lowest prices for their flights. Knowing when those ticket prices are the cheapest is a great way to save money,” says Mathias Friess, CEO of webjet.com in a Wall Street Journal report, “10 Tips for Saving on Holiday Travel Right Now.”

Common tips for booking airline tickets for holiday travel usually start with not waiting too long to buy. Know that prices commonly rise as holidays approach, so book as far in advance as possible. Looking for website codes and discounts is a good idea and not relying on just one website is better.

That is if we go it on our own to buy air.

A growing number of travelers are using a travel agent for airline tickets. Not just any travel agent, but one that specializes in airfare. Expect to pay a fee of $20 to $50 per ticket on top of the ticket price, a charge that can be easily worth every penny if a problem comes up en-route.

But before you begin to develop what will hopefully be a lifelong business relationship with a travel agent or agency, ask one very important question:

“If there is a problem with my flight before travel begins or when travel is in progress, will you make alternate arrangements for me?

The answer needs to be “yes.”

Rather than stand in line at the customer service counter of any given airline along with 200 other people off the flight that was just canceled, your travel agent may be the go-to person to take care of that while you relax in a lounge area.

Next flight out not until the next day? That same travel agent can arrange a hotel room for you as well as information on getting there and back to the airport, even where to have dinner.

Some other situations that beg us to use a qualified travel agent include international travel (especially for the first time), flying on an unfamiliar airline and traveling with special needs flyers like the handicapped, children or the elderly. Simply a busy personal schedule that does not allow hours surfing around for fares is also a common reason to use a travel agent.

Surely, using a travel agent is not for everyone. Travelers flying common routes to major destinations, those with flexible travel plans or passengers flying direct without connections will naturally fare better than others. Still, having a travel agent in your back pocket when things go wrong can be well worth the time it takes to find one.

[Photo credit: Flickr user kalleboo]

The Knee Defender Stops Airline Seats From Reclining, But Is it Ethical?

Last week, I heard about a product called the Knee Defender, which, when attached to the tray table of an airline seat, restricts how far the person in front of you can recline, on an episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” Apparently, this product has been available for more than nine years, but this was the first I’d heard of it. In the intro to the episode, host Ira Glass talks to Ken Hegan, a 6’2″ travel writer who uses the Knee Defender on flights, about the etiquette of using this unique little product.

As a frequent flier who often feels cramped in coach, I was intrigued, but wondered if it was ethical to limit another traveler’s ability to recline. So I contacted Ira Goldman, the inventor, to ask him how it works and whether it’s kosher to keep fellow passengers erect, or semi-erect in their seats.

How does the Knee Defender work?

It’s like a paper clip. You put it on the arms of the tray table. The tray table arms and the seat rotate on the same axis, so when the tray table arms come back and the seat’s not reclined, it’s like the blades of scissors. If you put something between the blades of scissors when they’re open, you can’t close them. That’s the dynamic of the Knee Defender.

According to your site, the Knee Defender isn’t FAA approved, but they also haven’t outlawed it, correct?

Correct. They only approve the things they have jurisdiction over and they’ve judged that they don’t have jurisdiction over this, so they have no problem with it as long as you aren’t using it during takeoff, landing or taxiing, but that’s when you need to have your tray table up anyways, so you couldn’t use it then even if you wanted to.

Have any airlines banned it?

The FAA has said it’s fine, my customers who are using it say it’s fine and as far as I know, it’s fine. That’s the bottom line.

But is this ethical? Doesn’t the passenger in front of you have a right to recline his seat?

When I fly, my knees touch the seatback in front of me. I’m only 6’3″, and I would even take the magazines out so in other words, that person isn’t reclining, because my knees will stop them, with or without the Knee Defender. All the Knee Defender does is, instead of my knees stopping the seat, the Knee Defender stops the seat. So the ethical challenge is not really there as you pose it, because it’s not as if they’d otherwise be able to recline.

Every Knee Defender that’s ever been sold says, ‘Don’t hog space.’ You should only use it to the extent that you need it. A number of customers, for example, use it with their laptops. If someone reclines, you can’t use it on your tray table, and it can also catch onto the little lip of the seatback. It can break your laptop.

The Knee Defender is adjustable. You can adjust it so they can recline not really at all or some amount, so this is marketed to stop people from being hit in the knees by seatbacks.

If I’m in my seat, trying to recline and I can’t, I would probably hail a stewardess. If she notices the Knee Defender, how would the situation unfold?

On the Knee Defender tag it says, ‘always listen to the flight attendant.’ Customers tell me that sometimes the flight attendant will say ‘don’t do that’ and they’ll have to take it off, and other times, they’ll realize there’s no leg room, so it’s not going to make a difference, so the flight attendant shrugs to the passenger who complains.

So it’s up to the flight attendant?

Yes, and frankly if there is room for the person to recline without hitting the person who bought my product, then when someone wants to recline, they should remove it (the Knee Defender). The Knee Defender isn’t called the I-want-more-space defender or the anti-claustrophobia-defender. It’s there to stop people from actually being hit.

If someone is using it just because they want a little more space, that’s not what it’s for. And if the flight attendant says you can’t do it, you can’t do it.

In the story on “This American Life,” the passenger who used your product handed the person in front of them a card warning them that they wouldn’t be able to recline their seat more than 2 inches. Does the product come with those cards?

There are two cards on our website. One if you don’t want to buy our product. It’s a note you can hand to the person in front of you that says, ‘By the way, I’ve got long legs, and if you recline, you’re going to bang into me.’ And then one that comes with the product that says the same thing but also says, ‘I’m using the Knee Defender, and if you want to recline, I’ll see if I can adjust it so we can both be happy.’

So what is the best etiquette? To notify the person in front of you that you’re using a Knee Defender or not?

On our site, we have a page about airplane etiquette. It may be wrong, but that’s my point of view. When you go to the restroom, do you knock on the door first, or do you just walk in? It’s up to each person.

Do you recline your seat when you fly?


Even on a trans-Atlantic flight?

No. I get a window seat and lean against the wall.

Is it uncomfortable for a tall person to recline or you think it’s rude?

I don’t think it’s rude if you know what you’re reclining into. It’s like pulling out of your driveway. You look and then you pull out. If someone is coming, you don’t pull out.

So if the person behind you is using a laptop, eating, or is just tall or large, you shouldn’t recline?

I think so, but at the end of the day, there is no physical space for some people to recline into. My knees often hit the seat in front of me, in a normal situation. There are also lap babies. You can be sitting there bouncing a baby on your lap and the person in front of you reclines, and the baby gets smacked in the head.

Some would say that if you’re too tall or large, you should just buy a business class ticket, right?

That’s a question of space. I’m not talking about space; I’m talking about not being hit in the knees. If you have short legs, and you aren’t using a laptop, or have a lap baby, don’t buy our product.

I’m only 5’11” and I thought about buying one. Does that make me a bad person?

There’s nothing to keep us from promoting this as ‘more legroom.’ But that’s just not me. I don’t have to say in the instructions how to use it appropriately, but we do.

Author’s Comment: I generally don’t mind people in front of me reclining, and if there was a situation where I didn’t want them to recline, I wouldn’t hesitate to communicate directly with that person. But I can see where some people are too shy to do that, and in that case, the Knee Defender might come in handy. Still, the airlines make seats that recline, so I suppose that means that people have a right to do it, even if you have long legs or happen to be eating, using a laptop, or holding a baby. What do you think?

[Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Ira Goldman]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Get paid to travel as a diplomatic courier

If you see an advertisement offering a chance to get paid to travel, odds are it’s a scam. But there are a few legitimate jobs that actually pay you to travel and the diplomatic courier profession is one of them. The Foreign Service has two main branches — generalists and specialists.

Generalists serve in more traditional diplomatic functions, and specialize in one of five career tracks: consular, management, public diplomacy, political and economic. Specialists also have diplomatic status but work in fields you might not associate with embassies — administration, construction engineering, facility management, information technology, international information, medical, office management and security.

The Diplomatic Courier Service is in the security branch, along with special agents who look after the security of our overseas embassies and personnel. Dale Cazier, a native of Syracuse, has been a diplomatic courier for 19 years and is currently the Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Courier Service. We spoke to Dale to get the scoop on the life of a diplomatic courier.

What does a diplomatic courier do?

We’re the only entity authorized by the federal government to carry classified information over international borders.

Do other countries have diplomatic couriers?

Yes, but not as many as we have. Right now we have about 100. But of those, about 20-25 are managers or supervisors like me.

Where have you served?

My first assignment was Frankfurt. In those days first tour couriers were given six-year assignments, now they’re usually three. After that I was based in Miami and then did two tours based in Washington.

In a good year, how many frequent flyer miles can you accumulate?

When I was based in Miami, within a year and a half, I got a million miles on American Airlines.

And you’re allowed to use those yourself, right?

Oh yes, they’re long gone now. When I first joined, you couldn’t keep your frequent flyer miles but that changed in the mid-’90s.

So how much classified cargo are you carrying on these flights?

It ranges from a piece of paper in a small orange pouch all the way up to a generator, which is massive.

What are the cities that U.S. diplomatic couriers are based in?

There are ten places; the offices vary from one-person offices to about 30. The four main regional offices are Frankfurt, Bangkok, Washington and Miami. And then there are hub offices in Seoul, Syndey, Manama, Dakar, Pretoria and Sao Paulo.When you join the service, can you express a preference of what city you want to be based in?

When you first join, you don’t get a choice. The career development officer meets with new recruits and says, ‘Here are the positions we want to fill with new recruits,’ and they can choose from those, but they don’t really bid on them.

There are a lot of pretty scary airlines in the developing world. Are diplomatic couriers required to fly on any of those airlines?

We don’t fly on those kinds of airlines if we can avoid it.

But there are some out-of-the-way posts serviced by dodgy airlines. How do you get to those places?

We try to avoid the more hazardous airlines but we don’t just fly, we also use ships, trains, whatever means of transportation is available.

But I imagine more than 90% of your trips are via planes, right?

90% is pretty close but we don’t just fly on passenger planes. We’re moving away from passenger flights toward cargo carriers.

Do you still get soft drinks and peanuts on cargo flights?

No. You’re lucky if you get a seat. Sometimes the only place to sit down is those little fold down seats. They’re about one square foot and it’s just like a piece of hard wood.

Is there time for sightseeing once you get to your destination?

There’s very little time for sightseeing. You might not arrive in a place until very late at night, and then you typically leave very early the next day to go to the next destination or back to your base.

How many days are you traveling in an average month?

You travel about 75% of the workdays in a month, so that could be 15 days or so.

Mostly day trips or do you stay overnight?

Over time that has changed. We used to go on 2-3 week trips at a time. Nowadays, most of the trips are down and back on the same day, if it can be done. That saves the taxpayers a lot of money on hotels.

O.K., so there isn’t a lot of time for sightseeing but you get loads of frequent flyer miles. But if you travel for work do you still want to fly in your off time?

When you fly day after day it can get tedious. I’d be home for a day or two and my wife would say, ‘Let’s go somewhere.’ But I’d just want to stay home.

What makes a good diplomatic courier?

The whole job is based on personal relationships and you’re completely independent. You need to be personable, flexible with different personality types. You’re always dealing with foreigners, most of whom don’t speak your language. People who can keep themselves entertained and don’t get upset easily and can make good judgments under stressful conditions do well.

And if you don’t like to fly I guess this a bad career option?

Right. And it’s not as glamorous as people think. It’s exciting and there’s lots of adventure, but it’s hard work too. If you don’t like traveling, or dealing with stress, or being on your own all the time, it’s probably not the job for you. But lots of people like it.

Ever had any close calls with foreign officials during your career?

I have. There was one time in Africa, when an official at the airport asked me what I was doing there and wanted to see my passport. Next thing I know, I was taken into a detention office.

I tried to explain my situation but he didn’t get it. So I was in a crowded room with a bunch of people I didn’t belong with. The guy told me to wait in the room but my outgoing flight was about to leave and the next flight out of the country wasn’t for another week. I didn’t want to stick around to see what they were going to do to me, so when the guy left the room I just sidled out into the hallway, very slowly, thinking that he’d catch me. I just kind of slinked over to the check in and snuck back onto my plane. But the whole time, I was expecting the security guards to come after me with their AK 47’s. When the plane took off, I was greatly relieved.

What does your passport look like as a courier?

It’s full. You have to keep getting extra pages added to your passport. My passport got huge. I had to carry about 4 passports usually, because 1-2 would always be out at embassies waiting on visas. We’d usually have a few diplomatic passports plus one regular tourist passport for situations when we didn’t want to show our diplomatic passport.

How hard is it to become a diplomatic courier?

We just brought in five new couriers in a training class, and we plan to hire nine more. We had four or five thousand applicants for 14 job openings. It’s very competitive.

Note: The State Department isn’t currently recruiting couriers, but you can sign up for an email update here, and you’ll be notified the next time there is a vacancy.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.