We arrived at the airport in Rome for our flight home shortly after 6:00 am after only a few hours of sleep. Upon entering Terminal 5, I was a bit surprised that what I assumed was the check-in area had no luggage belts and only computers on carts. Other than a few dozen passengers flying on various airlines to the United States, the place was deserted and most passengers seemed to be at a loss for where they were supposed to be. After a quick look around, we positioned ourselves at the entrance to the American Airlines queue marked for economy passengers. Shortly thereafter, a contract agent appeared to tell us that they would be opening up at 7:00 and he let us in to the queue. It soon became apparent that we were not in line to check-in but rather for some sort of security check.
The checkpoint opened just after 7:00, and I was soon glad that we were at the head of the line. After handing over our passports and boarding passes, we were grilled about where we were going and who had packed and handled our bags for about 5 minutes before our bags and passports were given a sticker and we were allowed through. After a short walk, our next stop was the check-in desk staffed by an Alitalia agent. She checked our bags and insisted on giving us new boarding passes, though the one I had printed out before leaving continued to work. Security was next and it made the normal TSA security that I am used to look good. There was little communication and we found ourselves waiting until somebody finally beckoned us through the metal detector. After passing through, I was scolded for not removing every single electronic device from my bag, and so back I went to unpack nearly my entire backpack. I'm not sure what was accomplished by having all of my stuff piled into a bin rather than neatly packed in my bag, I guess that is just how they do things there. After a swabbing for explosive residue that they seemed to be doing to many of the passengers and which we probably could have avoided had we moved faster, we were off to passport control which we breezed right through. Finally, it was on to a bus for the ride to the G gates of terminal 3. Needless to say, I enjoyed that bus ride with all of the nice tarmac views that it provided.
We disembarked the bus right next to our plane and took a couple of escalators up to the departures level of the terminal. Great views that were provided by the terminal's location were somewhat muted by the heavily green-tinted glass that was used. We had a quick breakfast in one of the few eateries in the terminal and then I set off to wander the terminal doing more looking than picture taking. It was a bit disappointing with all the different airlines operating there that I had never seen before such as EasyJet, Vueling, and Blue Panorama. I guess its a good thing that I never saw the Cubana flight to Havana.
Just as boarding was scheduled to begin, they announced a 40 minute delay, though no reason was given that I heard. Shortly before our new boarding time, the same contract security workers that we saw when we first arrived showed up and I was curious to see what they were going to do. As boarding began, a serious case of "gate lice" (those who hover around the boarding lines to be the first on when their group is called) developed making it difficult to board. Also making things difficult was the , shall we say thoroughness, that the Alitalia agents had when checking our boarding passes and passports making absolutely sure that the person looked like their passport photo. Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to speed things up, another Alitalia agent started calling the next boarding group after less than 10 people from the previous group had made it through. It was a mess. Up ahead, I saw what contract security was up to, having positioned themselves at tables where they were hand searching luggage and patting folks down. Pointless and a waste of time, probably, but we stood their waiting. That is, until people behind us passed right by us and down the escalator to the jetbridge with no repercussions. It would seem that it was an "optional" secondary security screening and I was having no part of that.
Our airplane home was the second oldest in American's fleet, and while the interior was dated, it seemed to be in decent condition. We settled into our seats which were in the same row but on the opposite side of the cabin as on our flight over. I noticed early on that the overhead monitor closest to us was very dark, almost to the point of not being able to see much. Once again, I was glad to have my iPad with me. We pushed back exactly 40 minutes late and entered a long lineup of 10 to 15 aircraft waiting to take off. The airport had one of its three runways closed for maintenance and that slowed down operations considerably. After about 30 minutes of taxiing, it was finally our turn to go. As we accelerated down runway 16L, I enjoyed seeing all of the different airlines that were lined up just as we had been, including a few more that I had never seen before. Just before we lifted off, one of the overhead bins a few rows behind us popped open, and it stayed that way for the first 25 minutes of the flight until a flight attendant finally came back to close it. there was a bit of light chop as we climbed out, however the flight was mostly smooth once we reached cruising altitude.
The cabin crew on our flight was very professional and exactly what I expect a cabin crew will be like. However none of them seemed to have the character that our flight attendant on the flight to Rome had, though I'm not complaining. About an hour into the flight, the lunch service began. Our choices were between chicken in a sundried tomato sauce with a side of spaghetti or pasta in a red bell pepper sauce. Each was served with a salad, bread & butter, cheese & crackers, a small bottle of water, and a cookie-type desert bar. Evidently, the exceptional Italian cooking that we had been experiencing extended to airline food as well since this was one of the best on-board economy class meals that I had ever had. The chicken was actually moist and full of flavor, while the pasta was also full of flavor and cooked just right. the salads were crisp and fresh while the bread was soft and obviously fresh-baked that morning. As on our previous flight wine and beer were complementary, though this time they didn't advertise its availability like they did on the way over. Nonetheless it was available and we enjoyed a decent Merlot. Another thing worth mentioning is the sheer number of beverage services that were performed. By my count there were at least 5, plus 1 water service, which was impressive.
Fighting my desire to sleep after getting less than 4 hours of it the night before, I cued up a movie on my iPad and settled in. The cabin quickly became darkened as other passengers tried to sleep, at times employing desperate measures such as wrapping the provided blanket around their head. At one point, one of the flight attendants made a comment as she passed by about how bright it was since our window shades were up. Either way, I'm a window guy and I wasn't about to close them if I didn't have to, though I did close the one that was more difficult to look out of to provide a little more darkness.
A couple hours outside of New York, the cabin crew began the snack service along with a couple more drink services. The snack provided was a boxed cheese pizza that was about what I would expect from a boxed piece of pizza bought in a store on the ground here at home. As airline food goes it was pretty good, though it couldn't hold a candle to the pizza found in Italy, or to that found in a good New York pizzeria for that matter. Also included was a small package of shortbread cookies which were delicious.
After the trays and garbage from our snack was picked up, the flight attendants came around with customs and immigration forms for us to fill out. They also played a video from CBP, in English and Italian, giving an overview of the process of passing through the checkpoint. The video was helpful to others less familiar with international travel into the United States I'm sure, but wasn't a really accurate description of what actually occurs. For example, they characterize it as a three step process, though the third step (hand in your customs form as your ticket to exit) was combined with the second step (the customs inspection). I have been through airports such as Dallas, where there is a separate person collecting your form at the door, however at JFK, at least in Terminal 8 this wasn't the case. As we were filling out our forms, we flew just east of Boston, providing some fantastic views of Cape Cod for those of us on the left side of the plane. As one of my favorite places on Earth, this was a very special sight to me. As we neared the airport, I noticed the Jones Beach Monument out the window. This is a very common waypoint heard over the JFK Tower frequencies when an aircraft is checking in. We swung north a bit before turning to the southwest for an arrival on runway 22L. The airport seemed awfully quiet in terms of aircraft operations and after a short taxi we were at the gate. Due to our arriving 40 minutes late, there were many passengers with suddenly tight connections to make. The flight attendants asked us to remain seated until those with connections could get off and we did, though I'm not sure how many of the other passengers did. You could tell the ones who were really in a hurry quite easily.
Our aircraft parked at terminal C and we took a series of hallways, escalators, and moving sidewalks to the customs and immigration facility on the ground floor of the B terminal. Along the way there were airline reps giving a warm New York welcome to those with connections yelling that it was "mandatory" that they stop and speak with them. I understand what they were trying to do, however the way it came across was a bit harsh to say the least. At the checkpoint, we were the only international flight at that particular time and we were through with our bags in about 15 minutes. As we stepped out into the hot weather that had arrived while we were away, it felt good to be back home.
Over 3,000 photos from this trip to edit but its moving along well. Look for several posts about our experiences in Italy with plenty of photos coming soon.