One great thing about Europe is that the continent fully embraces aviation geeks. Outdoor observation decks in the terminal, where you can hear engines whine and watch airliners come and go, stretch from Venice to Helsinki. (Hamburg's airport even has a lovely beer garden attached to its terrace.) Aircraft spotting is more than just tolerated, it's actively encouraged.
Even better, some airports, like those at Frankfurt, Munich and Amsterdam, offer public tours that treat the airports like a tourist attraction. Sounds fun? Of course, it does. That's why while on a trip to Amsterdam last week, I signed up for the Schiphol Behind the Scenes tour. (Click on the link for prices and bookings.)
Conducted several times each day, the tour takes you on a bus ride all around the airport, starting and ending at the main terminal. You have to stay on the bus the whole time, so you don't get to peek inside such wonders as the baggage sorting hall, it's still a fun way to spend an hour and see the hidden places that keep this city running.
The words on the back of the bus say "Experience Schiphol up close. The tour commentary is in Dutch, but a TV screen on the bus shows English subtitles.
The tour began with a drive across the airfield to the complex that houses KLM's headquarters, operations center (where the airline continually monitors its flights around the world) and maintenance hangers. Though I would have loved to see inside the latter two (I have been in the London Heathrow base for British Airways), we did pass KLM's engine repair facility.
The U-shaped pen lets crews test engines on the ground (called a ground run-up test) while deflecting the blast upwards and cutting noise for surrounding areas. Like many airlines, KLM is slowly (and sadly) replacing its Boeing 747s, like the one pictured here, with newer aircraft.
The Behind the Scenes tour is all about the places most passengers don't typically think about, but are absolutely essential. The fuselage you see here doesn't fly (and, really, how could it?), but is used to train the airport's firefighters. Real fires are set in a mockup airframe to simulate an actual burning aircraft.
Quite far from the passenger terminal is the Schiphol's terminal for private jets. This is where the rich, famous and powerful land when they fly to Amsterdam. The sleek silver bird in the foreground is a Bombardier Global Express.
Parked nearby was an all-white Boeing 737-800. The personal ride of the King of the Netherlands, perhaps? Not quite. Now registered to Slovakian charter airline Air Explore, it previously flew for Air Europa, Norwegian Air Shuttle and Iraqi Airways.
As we drove along the airport's perimeter, a flock of birds circled close to the ground. A concern at any airport, birds are kept under control at Schiphol through a variety of measures. As our guide explained, birds find the tall grass that covers the airport's open areas uncomfortable and too exposed. The grass also keeps away animals like mice that would attract birds of prey.
Like a lot of the Netherlands, all of Schiphol sits below sea level. The airport's tallest point is the 331-foot control tower that can you see from pretty much everywhere. I'd also love to drop in there, but as you might expect in our security-obsessed era, it's off limits to the public.
On the observation deck is a real Fokker 100 airliner that formerly flew for KLM. You can walk through the preserved cabin, listen to air traffic control radio and read about the history of the Dutch aircraft manufacturer.