Things I’ve Learned During my Flying Career
by Jeffrey Butts
[My attempt to explain air travel to a young man about to take his first flight.]
Walking into an airport terminal is like walking into a large sports stadium just before a big game. It’s noisy. Children are fussy. Everyone is trying to find where they’re supposed to be. Fewer people are drunk in an airport than in a stadium, however, so that helps.
First thing to know: arrive early. Plan your arrival time according to when your flight is scheduled to board and not according to the departure or take-off time. You should walk into the terminal an hour before boarding time (2 hours for international flights). Also, the published departure time is the airline’s intention, but it’s not a promise. When they inform you of what time things will happen, just silently add “ish” to everything in your mind.
Make sure you’re in the correct terminal. Different airlines may operate out of different buildings in large airports. Jet Blue could be in an entirely different place than Delta, for example. In smaller airports, all airlines are usually in one terminal.
As soon as you’re in the terminal, you should prepare for the upcoming security screening process . Take everything out of your pockets right away and put it in your luggage. Everything– keys, wallet, coins, candy, any weapons… Just kidding. Don’t make jokes about weapons in an airport! Act like you’re there for a colonoscopy.
But seriously, put everything in your luggage except your ID and your boarding pass, and put those in a pocket that will be easy to access later. You’ll need to fetch your ID and boarding pass quickly when you’re in the security line, even if you’re being interrogated by a uniformed TSA officer and someone’s kid has just banged into your shin with his aluminum roller bag.
Before you try to go through security, you need to be “checked in” for your flight. You’ll probably get an email the day before your flight offering to let you check in using the airline’s app or website. During check-in, you’ll have to answer a couple of basic questions and acknowledge that you understand there’s a bunch of stuff you cannot take on a plane (like caustic chemicals, gasoline, explosives, live chickens, MAGA hats, etc.).
It’s better to check in before leaving home, but you can do it at the airport too–either by speaking to a friendly agent at the airline counter or by using one of those little kiosks that are all over the terminal for just that purpose.
During check-in, you’ll be asked if you want to “check” your bags, which means, “hey, would you like to hand over your luggage at the ticket counter and have an airline worker send it directly to your plane?” Don’t do this. Airlines charge for the service–usually $25 to $50. Plus, every once in a while, the airline loses your luggage or accidentally sends it to Dallas.
Sometimes you’ll have to check luggage, however, if you have more than the airline will allow you to take on the plane (usually one small suitcase and a purse or briefcase).
If you do have to check your luggage, the worst part will be when you get to your destination. Even if your bag arrives on time and is where it’s supposed to be, you’ll have to go to “baggage claim” after you land and wait for your luggage to appear on a rotating conveyor belt while your fellow baggage checkers stand right next to the belt, blocking your access and pretending not to notice you. They do this because they are confident that somewhere near them, there’s a thief who wants their old suitcases stuffed full of dirty laundry and half-used deodorant sticks. So, they stand as close as they can get to where the luggage appears on the conveyor belt, even if they haven’t seen their bags yet.
This can add 15 or 20 minutes to your trip, and at the very end when all you want to do get out of the airport. So, if possible, don’t “check” your luggage. You want to “carry on.”
Keep in mind, however, that a carry-on bag must be small enough to fit in the overhead compartment of your plane. And small planes can have very small overheads. If you’re afraid your bag might be too big to fit in the overhead, just ask someone when you’re in the airport before you go through security. You could just walk up to someone in the bathroom and say, “hey, does my bag look big?” Or, maybe don’t do that…
Next, you need to go through security. This is everyone’s favorite part of air travel. You’ll probably see an area where a lot of people are walking like zombies through a back-and-forth roped-off space, mumbling to themselves and repeatedly pushing their roller bags into the legs of the person in front of them. That’s the security screening line. You’re going to love it.
Make sure you’re in the right line. You probably don’t have a First Class ticket and since this is your first flight, you certainly don’t have the type of frequent flyer status that allows you to get in the short line. If you know you’re in the correct line, just follow the person in front of you at an inappropriately close distance and hit their legs every once in awhile with your roller bag. At least, that’s how many people seem to do it.
After 10 or 15 minutes depending on the crowd, you will get to the end of the security line and be screened by a uniformed TSA agent who will ask to see your valid ID (a driver’s license is good). If your boarding pass is on paper, hand it to the agent. If you were emailed or texted a boarding pass with a QR code in it, you can use your phone as your pass.
Make sure the pass is on your phone screen as you approach the TSA agent and then place the phone (screen down) on the glass plate designed to read it. TSA agents actually like it when you place the phone on the glass yourself rather than asking them to do it. Most of them seem to hate their jobs.
Even if your boarding pass is on your phone, it may be useful to have a paper back-up in case of unexpected phone problems, like low batteries, locked screens, etc. Sometimes in the rush to go through security, you might also misplace your phone or find it awkward to hold onto it while managing your luggage. So, a paper back-up may be a good idea.
You can usually print your ticket at home. If you forget to do that, you can always do it using those little kiosks in the ticket area.
Remember, before you get in the security line, put everything in your luggage. If you’re wearing a belt with a metal buckle, take if off and put it in your bag. Get ready to take off your shoes too–unless you have TSA-Pre status. (If you don’t know what TSA-Pre status is, you don’t have it.) If you’re carrying a laptop or tablet, it will need to be removed from your luggage and put through the scanner separately, so be ready for that as well. Don’t wait to be told.
You want to do all these things as quickly as possible. People hate it when the person in front of them in a security line is confused and slow to execute the basic moves. They won’t do anything, but they may sigh, roll their eyes, and look at the people around them as if to say, “can you believe this a-hole?” Just ignore them and focus on your tasks.
Also, there are bins. Lots of bins. You can’t just put your things on the conveyor belt going into the CT scanner. You have to put everything in one or two of the large plastic bins and then push the bins onto the conveyor belt. Once the bins are moving firmly into the scanner, you can walk through the human-size scanner.
(Note: put your laptop, tablet, and phone in their own bin without other luggage. That’s how TSA likes it.)
After everything is in a bin, you will be walking through the scanner with no coat, no belt, no shoes, and nothing in your pockets. And, you can’t take any liquids through security. Even toothpaste and gel deodorant count as liquids, but they can go through security if they are smaller than 3 ounces or so.
No drinks, however. If you want to drink something, you have to buy it inside the gate area (after you clear security). If you are about to go through security and you’re still holding a large coffee with cream, do NOT try to drink it. You messed up. Just throw it away.
If nothing beeps when you walk through the scanner, and the TSA agents aren’t yelling at you, you’ve done it. You are cleared. Get your luggage from the other side of the scanner. Take your wallet and phone out, put on your shoes and belt–get reorganized. But, do NOT reassemble your belongings and put on your shoes while standing immediately by the CT scanner where other people’s bags are coming out on the conveyor belt. Just grab your things and move to a bench or a table or something and get yourself together over there. Basically, get out of the way.
In fact, during this whole process, if you’re ever in doubt about what to do, your first move should be to get out of the way. Step aside and re-evaluate your plan. Nobody ever gets yelled at for moving out of the way.
After you’re done with security, your next job is to find your gate. It’s included in your boarding pass, but if you’re using a paper boarding pass, try to confirm the gate on one of the information screens you see all over the airport. Gate assignments can change. If you’re using the app, you’re OK: it updates itself or at least notifies you of the gate change.
It’s a good idea to go straight to your gate after you clear security, just to make sure you know where it is and how the gate area is laid out. But, you don’t need to stay by the gate the whole time. Just make sure you’re within hearing distance of gate announcements about 10 minutes before the scheduled boarding time.
Until then, go buy something to eat or drink, use the bathroom, talk to people in the bathroom about your bag size. Or, no, don’t do that. Still not a good idea.
Do NOT leave your bag unattended ever, or the security staff may take it outside and blow it up. If you wonder what those garbled announcements on the airport PA system are all about, many of them are warning people about unattended baggage. They hate unattended baggage.
When the boarding process starts, there will be some system for organizing people so that all the passengers don’t try to rush the plane at the same time. Airlines and airports vary in how they do this, but a common strategy is to designate groups of passengers. On your boarding pass, you might see that you’re in Group D, or Group 2, or something like that.
The gate agent will use the PA to announce “now boarding Group 2.” That means you can board–IF you’re in Group 2. As you approach the door where the gate agent is checking boarding passes, you’ll notice some people, clearly NOT in Group 2, who are trying to be invisible while they block your path. These people think they can fool you into standing behind them rather than boarding with your group. (FYI, when you reach your destination, the same people will try to prevent you from getting your luggage at baggage claim if, in fact, you had to check your bags.) To get by them and board the plane, just catch their eye and say politely, “are you in Group 2?” They’ll act shy; pretend to check their boarding pass and say, “oh, no, sorry.” Yeah, it’s just sad.
So, stay in line, and when you reach the gate agent, show them your boarding pass when it’s your turn, either your paper copy or by placing your phone on the glass reader if you’re using it as your boarding pass. When the reader beeps, that indicates you’re clear to board.
You’ll follow everyone down the walkway/tunnel to the plane, but before you do that, this is a good time to make sure you’ll have access to the things you want during the flight (drink, phone, book, headphones). If your bag is small enough to fit under the seat in front of you on the plane, you could hold onto it and leave your stuff in it, but it’s more likely that you’ll be putting your bag in an overhead compartment when you board. If so, it won’t be convenient to get into your bag during the flight. So, you’ll want your small stuff with you and not in your bag.
As you’re walking down the tunnel to the plane, look at your boarding pass one more time and memorize your seat number: 10A, 14D, etc. That way, you don’t have to pull out your boarding pass when you’re standing in the aisle, slowing the whole process down.
Sometimes, there will be an option to “gate check” your bag at the end of the walkway, just before boarding the plane. “Gate check” means that you carry your bag down the walkway, but just before getting on the plane, you hand the bag to an airline baggage handler who gives you a tag or coupon of some kind. Then, when you land at your destination, you and the other “gate check” passengers loiter just outside the door of the plane until the baggage handlers bring all the bags up from the plane. They’ll just pile all the bags on the floor of the walkway and you grab yours when you see it.
People can get a bit aggressive and competitive during the process of retrieving bags from the gate check people. It may seem like there’s a contest to see who can get their bag first. Just relax. There is no contest.
Gate checking is very common on short flights and on small commuter jets, or “regional” airlines. If you have to bend your head down just to walk through the plane and there’s barely enough room to fit your butt between the seats as you walk, you’re on a regional airline.
As you walk through the plane, look for your row number and seat and get there as efficiently as you can. If you’re wearing a coat or heavy jacket, take it off before you get to your seat. You should also look at the overhead compartments as you pass them and at some point just put your bag in one of them. It doesn’t have to be directly over your seat. If you see an open compartment anywhere near your seat, just stuff your bag into it.
And if there’s enough room, you can also use the overhead luggage compartments to contain your fussy children while you enjoy some quiet time. Or, maybe that photo is a joke? … Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s a joke. Don’t put your child in the overhead compartment.
The overheads sometimes fill up before everyone has boarded, which means the last few people may have to ask a flight attendant for help in “checking” their luggage. If you go all the way to the back of the plane and then discover there are no available overheads, it will be awkward to make your way back to the front of the plane to talk to a flight attendant about checking your bag. Everyone walking toward you from the front of the plane thinks they have a god-given right to keep moving. If you ask them to let you pass as you’re trying to walk against traffic carrying your luggage, they may harrumph at you, or worse, they’ll realize you’re heading back up front because there are no available overhead compartments and they’ll be inspired to compete with you to get back to the front.
The best plan may be to stand calmly in front of your seat (not in the aisle) until a flight attendant notices that you cannot stow your bag overhead and then comes to help you.
When you are boarding, move as quickly as you can to find your seat, get out of the aisle, and sit down. Remember that “get out of the way” rule? People who dawdle and mess with their stuff too long while blocking the aisle are the absolute bottom of airplane social structure. Nobody respects them.
After you take your seat, all you have to do is sit there, but don’t expect to be comfortable. Airplane seats are made for 8-year-old kids. The rest of us must squeeze into our seat and try to defend our meager allotment of space from the person next to us who is struggling to fit into their seat.
Be prepared to deal with a “talker.” Most people on planes sit quietly and pray for the flight to end, but the person next to you might be a talker. Talkers want to chat; sometimes for the entire flight. Often, they’ll start with, “so, are you headed home?” You need to deal with this immediately. Try to be polite, but don’t encourage them, or you’ll end up spending the whole flight hearing about their grandchildren, that one time they went to Europe, or how much they like selling insurance. Put your headphones on as soon as you sit down. This will help.
Even worse than sitting next to a talker is sitting in front of two talkers who won’t shut up for the entire flight as they continuously exchange inane stories about their lives. You have headphones. Use them.
Of course, if you’re listening to loud music on your headphones before the plane even backs out of the gate, you’ll miss the helpful flight attendant’s announcements, but they all boil down to this: “Thanks for flying with us. We’re in charge; don’t f*** with us. Wear your seat belt. We’d love it if you purchased some of our horrible snack boxes. Oh, and if we start to crash, head for the nearest door and leave your crap on the plane, you idiot.”
Now, all you have to do is wait for that sweet moment when a pilot or one of the flight attendants comes on the PA to announce that your brief time in air-travel hell is nearly over. “We are beginning our descent.” It’s a simple, but joyous sentence.
And while there may be a button on the arm of your seat to make it recline, don’t do it. Recliners are worse than dawdlers.