Like flying private: The surreal experience of getting back to the U.S.
A KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747-400 is seen in this undated handout photo. (Capital Photos for KLM)
We weren't supposed to be on that flight. We weren't supposed to be leaving that day or from that city, on that airline or on that plane.
My husband Steve Lastoe and I had planned to stay in Switzerland until March 17, but on March 12 when we woke to news of U.S. President Trump's European travel ban, we quickly realized we needed to make alternate arrangements stat.
Scrambling to hatch a new plan, even after we learned Trump's ban did not restrict us as U.S. citizens from returning to our home country, we looked online for a new flight home.
Returning Thursday before the restrictions went into effect proved nearly impossible unless we were OK spending upwards of US$4K per person to get home.
We were not.
While I set my sights on what seemed like a perfectly acceptable Delta Air Lines trip through Amsterdam -- for 95,500 miles total and $200 apiece -- Steve dug a little deeper and found the same flight directly through KLM.
He convinced me we ought to burn some extra miles he had saved via a Capital One offer and spend an additional $100 or so to fly business class on the same flight.
I relented. After years of being spoiled with the perks of partnering with a "nervous" flier, I wasn't exactly dying to book no-seat-assignment tickets subject to high baggage fees on our oversized ski equipment.
Although the vibe in Zermatt had seemed normal right up until the moment we checked out of our hotel and were informed by the concierge the ski resort would be closing along with all of the ski resorts in Switzerland, it became clear just how quickly things had destabilized.
Our train ride into Zermatt from Zurich just three days earlier had been seamless; we were not so lucky on the return trip.
Personnel aboard the train was minimal, but one staff member approached me to let me know of a rerouting due to a tunnel's closure. This alternate arrangement and train transfer would set us back at least 60 minutes, leaving us with a little over an hour to make the first leg of our flight, from Zurich to Amsterdam.
A brief train delay at Spiez meant even less time to make the baggage drop window.
And our baggage, in fact, was a problem.
Between us, we had two large suitcases, a snowboard bag on wheels, a ski bag, a boot bag with backpack straps, a small carry-on backpack and a carry-on tote.
It was a lot on an easy day without multiple train transfers and a fear we'd miss our flight; it felt nearly insurmountable as the clock ticked and we realized if the rest of the trip went as scheduled, we would have exactly 16 minutes to get from the airport's train station to the check-in desk at an airport we did not know.
No skis left behind
Before Steve devised a plan to place my entire ski bag in his snowboard bag for ease of racing through the airport, I volunteered to leave my skis back. Carrying the cumbersome load added a layer of complexity and challenge I didn't think we needed at this stage.
The most important thing was making our flight and getting home as soon as possible.
In the end, we caught the train we needed to make if we stood any chance of making the 2:10 p.m. KLM flight.
At the airport's train station, I hustled like someone who once boldly argued for the merits of arriving at the airport last minute.
We dropped our bags at the oversized check-in desk with literally less than a minute to spare according to KLM's bag-drop policy. And it was only as we boarded the first flight at Zurich that I noticed "upperdeck" printed next to the seat number on my boarding pass.
'Wow,' 'So cool'
Audible expressions of delight and excitement surrounded us as we approached the boarding gate at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, and the pale blue behometh Boeing 747 appeared.
Even though many of us boarding that aircraft were leaving the country and returning home under less-than-ideal circumstances, the fear and anxiety consuming so many of us temporarily subsided as we all, each and every one of us, embraced our inner avgeek.
As I climbed the staircase -- straight not spiral like in the movies -- I felt giddy.
Two Royal Dutch Airlines attendants greeted us on the 747's upper deck and welcomed us aboard the queen of the skies.
"This is like flying private. It's the closest we'll ever get," my wide-eyed husband said, his delight at our good fortune evident -- even as we felt we were living in a nightmare.
The space to ourselves, we set about selecting seats, making jokes -- "you take the front of the plane, and I'll take the back" -- and exploring the empty cabin.
The irony of flying so stylishly, so intimately because of a worldwide pandemic was not lost on us. We hadn't been able to enjoy Switzerland, not really, but maybe we could try and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime flight.
'Queen of the skies'
We knew we faced newly implemented health screenings at JFK upon landing, and reports from friends and family on the situation in Brooklyn were sounding increasingly scary.
Some store shelves were empty, museums were closed and streets were eerily quiet. We were also aware of the mandatory self-quarantine and had no idea when we'd travel again, or if we'd even want to after all of this.
So, when one of the two flight attendants assigned to the 20-seat first class cabin came around with Champagne, we took it. And then we accepted seconds.
Before we knew it, we were making friends with the flight attendants and chatting with Victor Larine, the only other passenger with us in the upper deck cabin.
Marveling at the cockpit up front, the cabin crew's quarters across from the restroom and even the old-school in-flight entertainment system, my husband and I toasted to this eight-hour gift of a journey ahead.
Our appreciation increased when we heard the news: This Boeing 747-400 passenger jet was going out of service. The flight from Amsterdam to New York's JFK would be one of the last times the KLM aircraft ever saw the sky.
KLM launched the first iteration of the 747 — the 747-200 — in 1971, and it originally planned to retire the aircraft in 2021 on its 50th anniversary.
The retirement date is now April 1, when the aircraft will be left to crumble in a scrap yard or the desert.
There are perhaps a lot of reasons people love the 747. From crediting its capacity with affordability for the masses to the two aisles on the first deck to its range right down to the massive, hulking appearance, but the number one thing that sets the aircraft apart?
The upper deck. The staircase. The feeling of seclusion and coolness up there on the second floor just outside the cockpit. It's 1970s air travel glamor wrapped in a modern bow with business class seats that lie flat and menu cards offering a curated wine list.
As we talked to the flight attendants about this imminent reality, we heard in their stories and voices their love and adoration for this aircraft. "The most beautiful plane in the sky," one said. "There'll never be another like her," from another.
We buckled up and settled into our seats for takeoff. "It's like an old battleship coming alive," Steve quipped.
A few hours of calm
Passengers from the lower deck came up now and again to peer around. I wished I could invite everyone to sit and drink with us. There could be camaraderie in these dark times.
After making friends with one passenger from below, I asked one of the flight attendants if they could make an exception and let one more person join us in the empty cabin.
"I know you have rules," I said, "but if it's possible ..." My request was denied as I understood it would be.
In the end, I watched "Bridesmaids" on the grainy in-flight entertainment screen. I switched from Champagne to Rioja and ate really good cheese from Holland.
I looked on as Steve slept next to me, the dull roar of the plane louder than its modern aircraft brethren causing me to turn up the volume on my movie.
I tried to take a nap, anticipating a long and arduous customs wait at JFK (one which was far worse than I ever could have imagined), but sleep eluded me.
I got up, stretched my legs. Sanitized my hands. Ate more cheese. Fretted about the future of my husband's events-focused business.
I watched the sunset somewhere near Iceland, and for posterity, I snapped a few pictures.
I didn't think there was any chance I'd ever forget this flight home, our last for the foreseeable future, but I still wanted the visuals.