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Interview with Sebastian Schmitz

Today, we are very happy to be hosting a legend in the world of aviation reporting - Sebastian has been a regular contributor with major aviation magazine Airliner World for many years, and as an aviation fan and flight attendant has travelled more than most...

Pyongyang, North Korea
Sebastian, tell us something about your early life and how your love for travel and aviation came about.

Both seem to be in my genes really. Aeroplane was the second word I could say (after "Mama"). Dad wasn´t very happy. My love for aviation was probably fuelled by us living right underneath the approach path into Düsseldorf Airport. I saw aeroplanes flying by all the time and already as a kid, I started spending most of my weekends on the airport observation deck, watching the planes and taking pictures of them. The travel bug also bit me really early, much encouraged by my parents who gave me all the liberties I could wish for and let me go at a very early age. I couldn´t say that it was inspired by anything or anybody in particular, maybe most by browsing through my school atlas or looking at maps (something I still enjoy doing very much today) and imagining what places could look or feel like. I always liked geography very much in school and always had fantastic geography teachers, so that maybe helped stimulate my desire to see many parts of the world.
 

Tired after a long walk in St. Petersburg, Russia
You are an expert in planes and airports. What particular aspects of these do you look for which the 'ordinary' person may not be aware of?

I wouldn´t call myself an expert really, writing about airports a lot doesn´t make you any more knowledgeable than any regular traveller. When it comes to using an airport, I absolutely detest the latest trend of funnelling passengers through all the different shops like in an IKEA. If I want to buy something, I go there but I don´t like to be patronized. I also appreciate a low number of announcements, if any. Some airports are just so noisy and only surprisingly few have taken up the initiative and reduced announcements or banned them entirely (with the obvious exceptions). Short ways are great, too, although that is hardly possibly at major airports. When I look for airports or airlines to write a story about, I often go by countries or regions that I have not visited yet and try to find an interesting airport or airline there, almost as an excuse to visit. When an airport is in an interesting location, has a spectacular terminal or other features that make it stand out, perfect!

A much enjoyed visit to Chernobyl
So, in your opinion, which are the 'best' and which are the 'worst' airports and why?

The worst airports are mega-airports. The absolute nightmare for me is Dubai, it is a zoo and I absolutely try to avoid it when I can. Dubai also happens to be the worst touristic destination in the world I can imagine. I usually enjoy Japanese airports, Nagoya, Kansai and Haneda (in particular the new international terminal). They are hugely efficient, super tidy, offer all the amenities you need and are unobtrusive at the same time. Small airports are great: Stockholm Bromma, London City, Antwerp, Toronto´s Billy Bishop Airport. You have short ways, nobody is stressed out like at the major airports and the atmosphere is great. My favourite airport of all time (and I had the privilege to work there for a year) was Berlin Tempelhof but Berlin´s idiotic city government closed it.

Of the major European airports, Munich´s Terminal 2 is probably the best I know. They don´t force you through the duty free shop! One of my favourite airports ever was the one in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. I flew from there in the late 1990s. There was a tiny building with a check-in counter and passengers sat outside in the nice garden to wait for their flight. Which then happened to be a sub-chartered Douglas DC-6 instead of the planned Boeing 737. That was absolutely memorable.

Have you had a chance to review our own Series on Airports and Airlines? Any thoughts on these?

I think it is a bit too limited and restricted when it comes to the airports and I don´t understand why only certain airports and airlines are included and others are not. Maybe all airports with an IATA or ICAO code should be counted? I would select different criteria and restrict it less. 

In front of a not very interested gorilla in Rwanda
You are a writer for the popular magazine Airliner World, and your articles inspire aviation fans throughout. How does this make you feel?

It makes me very happy to hear that my articles have been an inspiration for readers to visit a certain part of the world, fly a particular airline. I have often been inspired by articles and then decided to go somewhere and find out for myself. Unfortunately, there is very little interaction between readers and writers, so it seems. I have maybe heard from readers three or four times in all those years, so the whole concept of "inspiring people" seems a bit abstract almost, as I hear very little from them. But if they can be an inspiration, it is probably the greatest honour such an article could wish for.

The airport helper in Santa Rosa, California
Aviation is also part of your 'real' job. Tell us a little about this and the ups and downs of this part of your life.
My first aviation job was as a ramp agent in ground handling at Berlin´s legendary Tempelhof Airport in the late 1990s. I absolutely loved what I did but and was doing it as a part-time job while studying in Berlin. My studies didn´t take me anywhere unfortunately, so I decided to leave university (and Berlin) after a bit more than a year. Then I really didn´t know what else to do. A friend of my mom´s was a flight purser (and an old dragon, by the way) and more or less talked me into trying to be a flight attendant, at least for a year or so. For someone so keen on travelling, it sounded like a great idea and 18 years later, I am still doing it. The older I get, the more I realize the downsides of working at weird hours and in a not-so-healthy environment. Also, working with so many people in a crowded (and flying) room, all with their particular needs and demands (and they tend to get more demanding and less vigilant) leaves its marks. I still absolutely love the lifestyle that comes with the job, finishing your shift and then being in Rio de Janeiro or Ashgabat. My primary job has also allowed me to pursue my writing "career" so all in all, I am still very happy with it. 

So as a result of your interest and job, you have really travelled the world. Tell us a few travel stories which have really made a difference.

One of my best travel experiences was to Eritrea in early 2001. I spent about a week in and around Asmara (at the time, all the media were full of articles praising the country as the new "hot" destination in Africa). One beautiful encounter after the next. The cathedral´s caretaker, who opened the church tower for me to climb up, an elderly driving instructor who took me around town in his rusty Fiat 500 and just many friendly people in the street. Eritrea seemed completely untouched and unspoilt and I feel privileged to have seen it back then. Sitting in a Russian banya in Antarctica and drinking Whiskey also ranks very highly. The most pleasant interactions I had were usually in countries, and that is probably an experience many share, which do not have so many tourists: Iran, Eritrea, Syria, Yemen all were fantastic both in terms of beautiful sights but also the most memorable interaction with locals.

I also fondly remember a visit to the Icelandic island of Grimsey, pretty much run by one single lady, so it seemed. I landed there on a little propeller aircraft and the lady receiving the flight greeted us. Later, the same lady was working as a gardener in the church garden and I met her again working at the island´s small petrol station.

One very memorable event that I can recommend to anybody even remotely interested in running is the annual Great Ethiopian Run. It´s a 10 kilometer run around the streets of Addis Ababa but it´s more a big street party really. There are thousands and thousands or runners or walkers, most of them not taking it too seriously. Instead, most people are dancing on the street, there is music everywhere and the atmosphere was just fantastic. I also had a surreal weekend in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan once, when a friend of mine decided to go there to celebrate his bachelor party, just the two of us. We stayed at a rustic little hotel run by a former German soldier and had a nice evening out with the physiotherapist of the governor (who invited us into his office the next morning). Beautiful. Sunset in the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon doesn´t hurt, either. I could do that again and again. One moment from my youth that I still have strong memories of was standing in front of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Man, I was impressed.
As a successful participant of the Great Ethiopian Run, Addis Ababa
What can you not travel without? 

Nothing too innovative here: a clean shirt, a credit card and a charged computer or mobile phone to to organize things, take the occasional picture or stay in touch with the world. That´s all I need really. I love to travel as light as possible.

What is high on your bucket list of places to do?

I seem to have a thing for islands. Most of the places I still want to visit are islands: St. Helena, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Aleutian Islands, Cape Verde, Socotra and Fernando de Noronha in Brazil. There is also Suriname which has a weird attraction to me as well as Burkina Faso and two places in the Pacific: Tuvalu and Vanuatu. I am intrigued by their names and hear good things about them (and they are, again, islands). I would also like to go to Tiksi in Northern Siberia. Look at the place on a map - how could you not want to go there?

A brief airport transit in Berbera, Somaliland
You are from Germany. What are your favourite places in your own country and why?
In terms of landscape and scenery, I really like Germany´s north and south best. Northern Germany with its very flat land, sheep grazing on dikes, light houses and the smell of the sea. Southern Germany is also really picturesque, I love the Allgäu, the Black Forest, the area just in front of the Alps, where you can see the mountains in the distance but are not surrounded by them. The two prettiest cities in Germany that I have been to are Lübeck and Bamberg. Both very old and very picturesque. Bremen is also a recommendation and one of the lesser-known cities in Germany. 
So what are your travel plans for the next few months?
Nothing too exotic really, but these things often happen at short notice: Italy (and hopefully San Marino, one of two European countries I am still missing) and South Africa are still happening this year and my first trip next year will probably be to Cambodia and Laos. I have been to both and liked them a lot!
Flying over Rio de Janeiro with the world's coolest flying instructor
Finally, our signature question - if you could invite four people to dinner from any period in history, who would you invite and why?

Barack Obama - I admire him a lot as a politician and also as a person, he seems to be hugely entertaining and just a funny guy. 

Angela Merkel, she must be quite a humble and modest person and apparently be very good at telling jokes and imitating people. I am sure she has lots of interesting stories to tell and would be an entertaining guest.
 
Wes Anderson, my favourite director and a very creative spirit.
 
Pope Francis - I am not a fan of the Catholic church at all but he seems to be a great humanist and a very kind, friendly person (and funny, too).
 
And maybe, if the table seats five, I would bring in Kim Kardashian or a similar personality. Why not?

Overlooking Skiathos, Greece
The photos in this interview are from Sebastian's personal collection and we thank him for sharing them with us at NomadMania!