Weird Things You Never
Saw on the Road Before
THURSDAY, APRIL 7, 2022 -- Pre-pandemic: Go on the road, see weird things.

Pandemic: Don't go on the road, forget all the weird things you ever saw on the road.

Post-pandemic: Go back on the road, see weirder things than you ever saw before.

You know the first two are true because you have lived it. If you haven't gone back out on the road, you'll have to take my word for it.

And here are my words to prove it. I've just gotten home from two weeks on the road and I think you'll agree these are weirder things than we saw on the road before the pandemic.

Imagine this scene: It's going on 8pm at International Terminal 4 at New York/Kennedy Airport, the regular PreCheck and Clear crowds shuffle in. They're then unceremoniously mixed with the gen pop at the TSA checkpoint.

"Shoes off, laptops out! Everybody!" barks a TSA functionary.

"What happened to the PreCheck line?" asks one infuriated flyer.

"PreCheck closed at 7:30," TSA functionary replies.

But as the line lengthens and the crowd grows restive, the TSA has an abrupt change of heart. An agent positions herself near the front of the baggage X-ray line and says: "If you're PreCheck, leave your shoes on. But have your boarding passes out so I can check them."

Whenever the agent spies a boarding pass with a PreCheck designation, she directs the traveler to another agent positioned between the magnetometer arch and the full-body scanner.

That agent then stands aside and waves PreCheckers between the two machines, urging them to walk right through without a body check of any kind.

When I reach that agent, I ask: "What's up?" Her answer? "You're PreCheck. Keep moving. Don't forget to pick up your carry-on. Have a nice flight."

Um, okay ...

When you arrive at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, you are greeted with signs that remind you that masks are mandatory.

Except, you know, if you decide not to wear one.

As I mentioned in a recent Tactical Traveler, Dutch officials in March ended mask mandates almost everywhere except Schiphol Airport. That isn't sitting well with the Dutch travel powers that be and they have, as threatened, stopped enforcing the AMS mandate.

When I coincidentally passed through Schiphol for a connecting flight on March 23, the first day that Dutch travel bosses stopped policing mask compliance, I'd say 99% of travelers trudging through AMS were masked. When I passed through Schiphol yesterday afternoon for a connecting flight, I would say about half the folks trudging through the airport had their masks down.

Nothing bores me more than talking about in-flight food. The upside is very small and the downside is, well, you see the downside all the time, right? I mean, ugh ...

Yet as I slid into my lumpy, well-worn business class seat on a KLM Cityhopper Embraer 175 yesterday, I got a shock. On a flight of less than two hours, the KLM flight attendant handed out menus, handled a pre-meal beverage service--five wines, two beers, spirits and a spread of hot and cold soft drinks--and then offered a meal to every flyer in the cabin.

She handed out a hefty box that looked attractive enough, blue and white and distinctly on brand for KLM. Open it and you are presented with what I can only describe as a clever Dutch take on an Indian Tiffin box. There were three compartments. One contained a large tabouleh salad studded with cheese, cherry tomatoes and pomegranate seeds. Another held three mini-patties of falafel and a serving of hummus topped with black sesame seeds. The third held dessert: a mousse of passion fruit and mango infused with candied orange.

The items weren't just good, they were "Hey, I'd order this stuff in a restaurant!" good. I was stunned, surprised, delighted--and curious.

The flight attendant confirmed what I suspected: This "all day" box is meant for serving anytime after breakfast. A second box--usually cold cuts, fruits and a warm roll--is served during morning hours. The so-called Marcel Wanders Box--he's the famed Dutch designer who created the concept--is prepared exclusively in KLM's Amsterdam kitchens. That allows food to be consistently prepped even at spokes in the KLM network. KLM even made room in the box to use their signature salt and pepper shakers in the shape of red clogs.

(BTW, in-flight food, even the good stuff, photographs badly when you're in the air using a smartphone camera. This image is a professional "beauty" shot provided by KLM and thus differs from the meal I was served yesterday. But believe me when I tell you the real meal I described above looked as nice.)

I was lucky enough to be in one place for a stretch over these last weeks, so I patronized the same little market frequently. At the register, it offers the "touchless, contactless" tap-and-go payment system that credit card firms are promoting. Whenever I went into the shop, the clerk would swivel the payment module in my direction. Each time I'd pull out the same credit card. I tapped. Every other time, I could go. The other times, we defaulted back to the old-fashioned swipe method. The clerk would smile and shrug her shoulders as the terminal then demanded my signature. I'd smile back and use the stylus to provide a parody of my signature.

In a snaking priority check-in line at Genoa's Cristoforo Colombo airport, I watched at least 10 flyers in front of me turned away. None of them, according to the check-in agent, an airport-services employee, had the correct Covid forms for whatever country they wanted to visit. I alone got it right. Yet for some reason known only to the clerk, she insisted on entering my home address again, including a zip code. But, hey, I got checked in after watching others turned away. I wasn't going to complain.

Ever since we began to fly internationally again, airlines have urged us to upload our documents--vax passports, records, test results, location forms, attestations of clean living, whatever--into some app or another. Bottom line: It's a waste of time. In eight international flights this year covering three carriers, I've had to show all documents again in person at the airport despite uploading them in advance as requested. And every time, the explanation from a check-in agent was always a variation of this refrain: We know what they tell you will happen if you upload the forms, but they are never in our system here.

I got back to Kennedy last night, tired after two weeks on the road, and sidled up to the Global Entry kiosk. I hit start and the machine immediately demands I remove my mask and glasses, then takes my picture. It quickly spits out a receipt. I never even inserted my passport. But there was my name, my flight and all the other relevant details printed with a washed-out image of my washed-out face.

Wazzup? With very little advance warning, Customs has been rolling out biometric facial recognition technology at Global Entry kiosks in gateway airports. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for when your airport gets the new tech.

It worked for me last night, so no complaints. But I keep thinking back to that 50% success rate with my tap-and-go credit card at the grocery store.

I rue the day when facial tech fails and the Global Entry kiosk demands that I tap my face into the kiosk screen to prove I am who my passport claims I am.

That's surely gonna hurt ...