06 July 2011

The Joys of Flying

Air travel has always been a challenge; I dispute those who claim to remember when flying was pleasant or comfortable. Certainly enhanced security procedures have added to queues and time requirements, but there were always uncertainties, delays, and hassles. I recall a delayed Eastern Airlines flight one time. A fellow passenger called Domino’s Pizza delivery and ordered a pizza from his first class seat. The order taker at first objected in case the plane departed before the pizza guy arrived, but the fellow traveller indicated it was Eastern Airlines after all and they never left on time. The pizza guy agreed and 45 minutes later the pizza arrived and was shared with all in first class. Of course, this was before security required boarding passes in the US.

I have flown a lot in my career; one million plus miles on two different airlines, elite status on anything with fixed wings, and enough harrowing experiences to make me appreciate whenever I arrive safely. I remember when Gold Elite was a desired status; now replaced by Platinum, Platinum Plus, Super Platinum ….

I still get nervous when I fly. Recently, for example, I flew to Russia. I grew up during the Cold War, and as I passed through Russian immigration I had visions of improper paperwork (actually I was warned by the Russian Consulate about my documents) would result in a trip to a Siberian gulag. Fortunately, I passed through without incident this time.

For most travellers, the difficulties start with the trip to the airport. What did you forget? Are you going to miss the plane because of bad traffic? Will there be room in the overhead bins for your carry-on luggage? Are you going to be relegated to a centre seat between 2 obese passengers and potentially be suffocated or squashed to death? If you have ever been “pinned” to your minimalist seat between 2 over sized seat mates, being so squeezed is not a happy memory.

Arriving at the airport late is a typical phobia. It does not help that virtually all airports including those with 30+ million passengers typically have only 2 driving lanes accessing the departures area. There must be an airport design manual somewhere that limits access lanes to 2 regardless of traffic volumes. The only sure way to avoid airport traffic in most cities is to go when the planes are not flying; which seems counterproductive. Mondays and Fridays are especially bad.

Inside the airport, the check in process has become very impersonal; the smiling agent has been replaced by a machine with a video screen. I used to plead with the human agent for better seats – bad back, Mother died recently, whatever excuse seemed likely to elicit sympathy. I think the agents kept a few seats available for passengers with the best stories. It is impossible to negotiate with a machine, however.

Airlines do not like luggage. Go to Europe for 2 weeks, and the airlines seem surprised when you bring a few changes of clothes. The cardinal rule of flying is to NEVER CHECK BAGS. When you check a bag, only 2 things can happen: 1) you will wait an extended period of time at baggage claim for your dented, scratched, or damaged suitcase or 2) the airline will lose your bag. There are no good outcomes possible when you check bags.

I once watched a TV documentary on what happens to lost bags in the US. Evidently, they are sent to a warehouse in South Carolina (or maybe it was Georgia) and then sold. The TV reporter went to the warehouse and discovered that many of the bags had name tags. Maybe the machine that routed the bag to the wrong destination did not read so well.

Since checking bags is a bad idea, the only option is to carry them on board. Most airlines have a miniature basket at check in with a sign indicating all carry-ons must fit within the small basket. Everyone ignores this warning; most briefcases and handbags would not fit much less a suitcase. But everyone with carry-ons then feels guilty and at risk of having their bag seized so no one complains about other things; I think it is a plot by the airlines to muzzle dissent similar to totalitarian governments.

Since 9-11, security has become every flier’s nightmare. I think airports must be better at raising capital to buy stuff than paying people to operate what they buy. Most airports seem to have 8-10 metal detectors and screening X-ray equipment, but there are usually only 2 or 3 lines open. Why buy so much stuff if you are not going to use it? My old school in Chicago could probably use the metal detectors if the airports don’t use them.

Maybe if the airports had more money – not sure why they need more money based on the prices in the airport gift shops – but if they do, I have a proposal.

As long as all passengers must be X-rayed, why not offer dental or bone X-rays as passengers pass through security? Have a gimpy knee? Get an X-ray emailed to you from airport security for an additional charge.
Carrying this idea further, security could offer a more powerful MRI line. Have a head ache? Get a brain scan at the airport. This could revolutionize health care and vastly increase preventive medicine while funding more operating security lines at airports.

Another idea to expedite the flow of passengers through security would be to replace human operators with machines. Robots would be purchased at the time the X-ray equipment was purchased. If the robot/machine detected something improper or unacceptable, they could shoot the offending passenger with a type of paint gun, marking the guy for human follow up. I guarantee passengers would be very careful about not breaking any rules or packing suspect goods.

At the very least, security lines should be divided into separate lines. One line would be for potential terrorists and one for non-terrorists. The Boarding Pass would identify what line you are assigned to. Governments already categorize passengers by threat potential based on intelligence and predictive models; why not formalize this and let the non-terrorists pass through more quickly with less scrutiny? Customs facilities often have 2 lines – one for people with nothing to declare and one for guys who are afraid of being caught. The principal is similar.

Security procedures vary greatly in different countries. In Russia, passengers wait outside in the summer heat or winter cold waiting in long lines to be screened. Russia does not want terrorists in the airport common areas.

In India, they often screen outside too but then they have everyone’s papers checked by 9 separate guys. I guess India tries to create jobs by making life difficult for air travellers.

Generally, there are several key universal strategies to move through security more quickly regardless of the airport or country. Let me share a few based on my years of observation.

1. Avoid lines with older people, baby strollers, and women with big handbags or lots of jewellery.
2. Pick lines with men in suits – they have navigated the process before and are experts at moving through lines more quickly. Women seem more contentious and determined to do things correctly even if it takes more time.
3. Avoid young children but look for young adults in line ahead of you. The latter group often wear flip flops instead of shoes and have few material possessions to set off alarms with.
4. If the guy at the monitor has a helper to move passengers and bags along, this rates a “tick.” If he or she is both managing the line and watching the monitor, it could be a long wait.
5. Avoid monitor watchers who look unhappy or irritated.
6. Avoid monitor watchers who look engaged, focused, or contentious.
7. Seek monitor watchers who appear high on drugs or day dreaming.
8. After passing through the metal detectors, locate the guy with the swab who checks for explosives. Always keep another passenger between you and the bomb guy.

To improve your on board flight experience, here are a few additional tips.

1. Always ask for an aisle seat unless you intend to sleep the entire trip (window seats are better for sleeping). If someone obnoxious sits next to you, the aisle offers an escape when airborne. I always think if the plane crashes, guys in aisle seats stand a better chance of a quick exit and survival; but my friends tell me if the plane crashes it does not matter where you are sitting.
2. It is better to be seated near the front but not in the second row. Airlines often put crying babies in the bulkhead first row. Slightly older kids (age 1-3) tend to throw things at passengers in row 2 also.
3. Sitting in the back of the plane near the toilets is not pleasant. If the toilet smell does not disturb, the constant noise of flushing will keep you awake, and the lines of waiting passengers will preclude any privacy. Finally, you will not be allowed to leave the plane until everyone else has vacated. Sitting in the back is the airline’s form of punishment.
4. Never sit next to anyone who checks whether there is an air sick bag in his or her seat pocket.
5. Never sit next to anyone who asks for a seat belt extender. He or she is too fat and will spill over into your already cramped space.

The on board service quality varies by airline. Once I took an Aeroflot jet to Russia. The plane was a new Airbus that looked like any other airline plane of the same model. The flight attendant greeted me and asked if she could take my coat. All good so far. I gave her my raincoat, and she proceeded to wad it up and throw it into an overhead bin. Evidently she was schooled to ask for the coat but must have missed the class on what to do with the coat.

That reminds me of the time my son, Andrew, and I were in a coffee shop in Poland. With Andrew translating, I asked if they had American style brewed coffee. They said “yes.” Then I asked if they had decaffeinated coffee. They said “yes” again. So I requested a cup of coffee, ½ decaf and ½ regular brew. They replied “we don’t have that.”

Food service on airlines is always a challenge. Some airlines still serve meals on domestic flights like Qantas and Continental, and most serve meals on international flights. Most airline domestic flights, however, offer pretzels for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some airlines even charge extra for food; it is truly a measure of desperation for someone to buy airline food.

Eventually after fighting traffic jams, impersonal check ins, long security lines, narrow seats, cramped leg room, crying babies, and overpriced snacks, passengers usually do arrive at their desired destinations as planned, unless there is a mechanical problem with the plane, bad weather, missed crew assignments, employee union actions, or other malfunction. And if the passenger violated the cardinal rule of air travel and checked luggage, he or she will have the usual 30-60 minute wait at baggage claim assuming the bag was not lost. But we have all learned to accept this process and have even become accustomed to it. At least we are not bound for a Siberian gulag – so things could always be worse.