Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How to Survive Your Airline Flight: The Captain's Guide to Staying Sane

Tips to improve your airline flight
Glamour defined

Many decades ago, travel by air was considered amazing. And glamorous. Fast forward into the eleventh decade of passenger air travel and it is still amazing, but not quite so glamorous. That is unless you are riding first class on an Emirates A380 from Dubai to London. And if you can afford the price of the first class suite on that airplane, you aren't wasting your time reading airline blogs on the Internet. You have more important things to do such as restructuring a corporation or perhaps closing an important arms deal.

For the rest of us, though, air travel has become annoying, mundane, irksome, and maddening. I know this because it's my livelihood. But not only do I get to look back on the wretched refuse as that wonderful bulletproof carbon-kevlar cockpit door swings closed with a heartwarming thump, but as a commuter, I have the dubious honor of sampling the product myself at least several times weekly. And trust me, dear reader, when I say to you that I look forward with relish to the day that I will never again have to set foot as a passenger on a commercial airliner.

I exaggerate, but only slightly, for I believe that the average airline passenger will agree that the modern airline experience is something to be simply gotten through, as opposed to enjoyed as it was in times not too distantly removed. Luckily, though, there are things that airline victims er, customers can do to make their flight at least tolerable, if not actually enjoyable. The Captain is on the case and herewith presents his indispensible guide on how to survive your airline flight!

Before You Go, Choose Wisely

You've done your best to avoid going at all, but your boss wants you at that conference in Atlanta, or your spouse's sister is getting married and there's no face-saving way to decline the wedding invitation. So you're going. Next, you'll have to book your flight. This will be an exercise in contrast. You must contrast the amount of pain you're willing to inflict upon your wallet versus the pain that you're willing to inflict upon your soul by going cheap. 

If you've got the scratch to go first or business class, then we're probably done here. All the major US airlines are roughly equivalent in their first class service, and you'll have a nice wide leather seat away from the hoi polloi. Remember, though, it's bad form to show up to the meeting or rehearsal dinner drunk from airplane wine no matter how much it might be needed. Good luck.

If first class is too dear, your next best choice in class of service is a product called "Economy Plus" as United calls it. American calls their product "Premium Economy", and Delta's is Delta Comfort+. This class is pretty much what just plain old "economy" used to be called before the seat pitches were jammed together to force a few more sardines into the can. You'll get an economy seat, but the seat pitch will be suitable for a normal human being for which of course you'll pay extra for the privilege of being able to feel your toes after landing.

Your next cheaper option will be plain 'ol economy and at this point you may want to consider letting price guide your decision with a few caveats. Make sure to check the airlines' baggage policy to avoid unpleasant surprise charges on your arrival at the airport. Most airlines have "unbundled" their services and will stick you with bag charges if you're not careful. They've done this to avoid paying excise taxes on this new "service" as those taxes are only levied on the ticket price itself. Smart for them, expensive for you. The Captain's advice: choose carefully how you like your pain, financial or in dignity.

How Basic Can You Get?

There is still yet another class of service that has started to appear at the top of your Expedia listing known as Basic Economy, better described as "steerage" class. This will be a rock bottom fare for a rock bottom experience. You'll board last, won't get to have any choice in seat assignment, and even a bag in the overhead bin will cost extra. This service was introduced to counter the competitive threat from the new ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.

How basic are they? Well, no one who has flown on Spirit has ever been known to book a second flight as the service is so abysmal. Their low fares, however, ensure that the airline will remain full until such time that all Americans have flown on them once, at which time they'll declare bankruptcy, rename themselves, repaint the airplanes, and start again. The Captain's advice: just don't.

Does the Type of Airplane Matter?

Is the Pope Catholic? Yes, actually, quite a bit. This may not be well known, but as far as narrowbody aircraft go, the fuselage of the Airbus family of jets (319, 320, 321) is seven inches wider than the Boeing family (737s, 757). This may be because the 737 was based upon the 1950s era designed 707. Crushed velour warm up suits and big gulps hadn't been invented yet back then and the population was somewhat less rotund than that of today. In any case, you'll have a bit more breathing room in the back of an Airbus than a Boeing narrowbody aircraft.

If you happen to find yourself on a commuter aircraft, please accept our condolences, though the situation is improving. The first generation of commuter jets with their toy seating and miniscule overhead bins will require serious contortions from anyone even slightly above average size and weight. A new generation of aircraft from both Embraer and Bombardier known respectively as the "E" and "C" class aircraft promise much more reasonably sized accommodations due to larger fuselage size. 

There are dozens of seat configurations on dozens of different airplanes and it is never a bad idea to consult a travel website to find out the unique bulkhead or emergency exit seats which might offer more room. This can vary across airline, model, and even sub-model of aircraft (-300 vs -700). The Captain's advice: know your airplane and caveat emptor.

The Gear You'll Need

What you bring along to entertain yourself in flight is largely up to you though I do recommend some essential pieces of gear which should always accompany you on any flight. My first "do not leave home without it" piece is a good over-the-ear set of noise cancelling headphones. Why? Because toddlers and infants. And chatty neighbors.

You may consider yourself lucky, but eventually your luck will run out and a screaming infant will be well within earshot. Look, I love babies as much as anyone, but I raised my four and got that box checked. And it never helps to throw shade at a harried mom dealing with a squawling child (especially if you're married to her). The pressure changes in an airplane can make babies' ears hurt. But what you can do is to remove yourself from the situation in an auditory fashion by slipping your headset on and cranking up the Rush. Don't worry, the baby will be just fine, and so will you.

My second recommendation is a generous supply of alcohol wipes. The ones individually wrapped seem to stay moist the longest. Why? Because an airplane is a flying Petri dish. Every solid surface on an aircraft is touched by hundreds of people on a daily basis. And they all have colds and just sneezed into their hands before using the tray in front of you. And it's gross but trays occasionally get used as changing tables. Not gonna lie. The Captain's advice: wipe everything, trust nothing.

Game Day

So you've bought your ticket, checked in online the night before, and are approaching security. Should you find yourself in an airport with the choice of several security checkpoints which serve the same secure area, my advice is to locate the one closest to the Southwest gates...and then go to the other one. It is guaranteed to be less crowded. This goes even if you happen to be flying Southwest. They are a volume producer and you'll get through more quickly.

Let's assume that you've survived the tender mercies of the friendly yet efficient TSA agents and are now looking for your gate. A fun thing to do here is to stand with your back to the airport monitors and then flag down someone in uniform. Show them your document and ask them which gate to go to. Always a barrel of laughs.

A word of caution is advised when looking for something to eat in the airport. An old adage stated that the best eateries along the highway were the ones which had a lot of trucks in the parking lot, the idea being that the pros knew the good places to eat. The same is not necessarily true in an airport. The place with most of the crew members standing in line most likely has the largest employee discount, which, of course, you won't get. It might also be good, but there's no guarantee. The Captain's advice: bring a sandwich.

The Boarding Process

The late comedian George Carlin once based an entire sketch on the silliness of gate boarding announcements, especially asking why it is announced as a "process". Why doesn't the gate agent simply announce we will now begin "boarding" versus "the boarding process"? I've been doing this for 26 years now and I haven't got a clue. Just one of those things. The agents themselves probably don't know either.

Now if you have an assigned seat, you simply wait your turn and you get in line. If, however, you are flying on one of the several airlines without assigned seating, there is a very definite strategy you should follow. It is very helpful for you to have done your homework and checked in online as early as possible to get the best pole position. It also helps to know how many seats are on the airplane you are boarding.

Knowing some human behaviour traits helps as well. Most everyone wants to avoid the dreaded center seat, but they also value being near the front which allows an earlier escape after landing. If you're lucky enough to be in first boarding group, then bully for you! But if you're in the second, or even third group, there's hope.

Window and Aisle: Front to Back, Center: Back to Front

As the plane fills up, the window and aisle seats will fill from front to back, and people will continue to move aft looking for one of those window or aisle seats. Eventually they will run out and there will be a "bounce back" as passengers now resigned to a center seat move back forward. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to grab a center seat in the first few rows that everyone has passed up.

Yes, you have to suck up a center seat, but the advantages are that you are near the front, and you get to pick some relatively skinny and/or cute people to cozy next to. This technique is also useful to avoid toddlers. The Captain's advice: NEVER choose a seat in front of a row with toddlers. They will kick your seat. You've been warned.

What to Order

You've successfully gotten airborne and are watching a movie on your device when James or Suzy comes by to ask for your order. Unless you're completely parched, or the flight is longer than an hour, my advice is to pass. Remember that to many flight attendants, sick days are never to be used when they are actually sick. Those are to be saved for special occasions such as Bonnaroo or the playoffs. In other words, be wary of the people handling your food and drink. Perhaps I'm just a germophobe, but I've flown with some pretty sick flight attendants who just soldier on.

Well, dear reader, I've hopefully given you some useful information to make your next flight more enjoyable, or at least less painful. Remember that, as Louis CK put it in a comedy piece, you are partaking in the miracle of human flight sitting in a chair in the sky. Just who knew that experiencing a miracle could send otherwise normal people into a spittle flecked rage?

Oh, and always wear shoes to the lav. My wife once saw Cate Blanchett go into the bathroom on a 777 in bare feet. Ewww.



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