Mark Gerchick, former FAA counsel, presents a horrifying and lucid dissection of air travel in America in his new book Full Upright and Locked Position: Uncomfortable Truths about Air Travel Today. To cheer you up after being charged those hidden fees, here are 10 tips to make future flights a little more comfortable.
1. Lower Your Expectations - Back in the day, flying was supposed to be a pleasant adventure. Even if it really wasn’t, airline marketing (“fly the friendly skies”) and the relative novelty of soaring above the clouds made air travel something to get dressed up for. Today, half the adult U.S. population takes the flying bus and most of us – at least in the back of the plane – would just as soon avoid the hassle, crowding and stress that the experience has too often become, even if flying is still a pretty good bargain. Meanwhile, airlines no longer promise to “take care” of passengers. They see their job as more limited -- in the words of the CEO of United, America’s largest airline -- to “get you where you want to go, on time, with your underwear.” Pretty basic. “Sit back and relax” has evolved into “you get what you pay for.”
2. Build Your Own Nest Onboard - At least in the economy section, the airline today is not going to give you a free pillow or blanket (at least not a clean one), or food, or entertainment (unless you enjoy the “SkyMall” catalog) or playing cards or eyeshades, so bring the stuff you want onboard with you. Pack a lunch or buy one at an airport foodie outlet (some good ones can be found at major hubs), buy a bottle of water after security, and bring a sweater and a good book or digital reader.
3. Be Productive: Use the Technology - Use the airport “kiosk” to skip the check-in line or, better yet, check in online before you hit the airport bedlam. Airport web sites can help you find your gate, check your flight status, or discover things to do while you’re waiting. Big airports are offering free wi-fi, plug-ins, and work desks so you can spend waiting time productively, and play areas for kids, so they can too.
4. Don’t Forget the Hand Sanitizer - Seriously, hundreds of folks every day can grasp that little knob that locks and unlocks that onboard lavatory door. And who knows what’s been in the seatback you’re fishing around in? Maybe you can’t do much about your sneezing seatmate, but when it comes to onboard health, a little hand sanitizer can go a long way to avoid some nasty bug.
5. Be Nice to Fellow Travelers - Airplanes have never been more crowded, with nearly 85 percent of seats filled on average. Convenient flights on major routes are typically chock full, especially during peak summer travel months, and legroom has been squeezed as airlines try to cram aboard as many paying seats as possible. The upshot is that empty middle seats rarely exist, bodies are more cramped, and the overhead bins are jam-packed with carry-on bags. Deregulated airlines can’t be forced to keep seats empty or preclude discomfort (anyway, it would inevitably raise fares), but a little human kindness can improve everyone’s sanity. Why not help someone stuff their bag into the overhead, ask the guy behind you if it’s ok for you to recline a little, try not to roll your eyes at the crying baby, and maybe even cede an inch of armrest space to your seatmate for a while?
6. Be Nice to the Workers, Too - For front-line airline employees – like flight attendants and gate agents – crowding means added stress and even less time for each passenger. TSA bag screeners also face a growing workload as passengers try to avoid checked-bag fees by carrying all their stuff onboard. Even if you’re not sympathetic to the plight of these harried folks, consider that, as humans, they are much more likely to help you snag that aisle seat or full can of soda if you’re not pitching a snit fit.
7. Don’t Obsess about Getting the Ultra Rock-Bottom Fare - Everybody wants the cheapest possible fare, but obsessing about it can drive fliers mad. Low-fare hunting has spawned a whole cottage industry of airfare gurus, web sites, and frequent flier online chat rooms dedicated to the game. For most passengers, though, trying to out-fox the airlines on fares isn’t worth the time and effort. The fares available for your flight are based on reams and reams of historical data about how seats on that and similar flights have sold out in the past, all crunched by powerful computers using arcane MIT-developed algorithms, and designed to get you to shell out just as much as you are willing to pay, albeit unhappily. Good fare deals can be found, but if you find a real steal, it’s probably only because somebody in the airline’s revenue management department screwed up. So if it seems like you’re getting a decent fare, it’s often best to just take it.
8. Spend a Few Nickels and Dimes - The only things everyday fliers hate more than cramped coach seats are the nickel-and-diming fees that have grown since 2008 from minor annoyances to wallet-draining excises for everything from reserving a seat to renting a pillow. Plenty of fliers resent paying extra for things that seem to be part and parcel of their flight, but the fees are just too important to the industry’s long-elusive profitability to disappear. So when it comes to preserving our air travel sanity, selective capitulation to the fee regime may make sense -- to avoid the stressful uncertainty of no assigned seat, to secure a few more inches of legroom, or to avoid, through “priority” boarding, the scrum to jam carry-on bags in overcrowded overhead bins.
9. Don’t Worry about Safety - There’s no such thing as absolute safety, but flying in the U.S. (and much of the rest of the developed world, for that matter) is, by any rational definition, extremely safe. The last U.S. commercial airliner crash, a regional commuter flight near Buffalo, happened more than four years (and some three billion U.S. passengers) ago. An MIT statistician has figured you would have to fly every single day for 63,000 years to be involved in a fatal crash. Any American kid chosen at random is more likely to become President of the United States. So at least when it comes to safety, “sit back and relax” is more than public relations fluff.
10. Take Your Time - In air travel, things always seem to take longer than they’re supposed to. You get stuck in the check-in line behind a couple buying tickets for their around-the-world 50th anniversary journey. The security screener wants to look inside your carry-on. When you’re juggling three roll-aboard bags and three kids, your flight’s boarding gate is inevitably located at the other end of the quarter-mile long airport corridor. Murphy’s Law applies in spades to air travel. So give yourself an extra 20 minutes’ time cushion. It can be a huge stress reducer, and the best airports are increasingly making waiting time – they call it “dwell time” – more pleasant and productive, with places to work, shop, and dine.