13 Things You Must Know About Air Travel: the Compleat Idiot’s Guide

The Spoiled Guest travels a lot, and this means, inevitably, paying an airline to take us where we’re going.  We’ve observed over the last few years a number of key principles of dress and decorum while traveling by air and, taking a breather from our peripatetic reviews, we’d like to share a few of them with the less experienced:

  1. Pre-Flight Hygiene. Let’s be honest. Travel by air is no longer a luxury event.  Planes are generally filthy, flights are long, space is cramped, the air is stale — and you’re usually going somewhere you don’t really want to go with a companion you should have broken up with last millenium.  In this context, what’s the point of cleaning up in advance of a flight?  If you’ve bathed in the last 2 days, you’re probably good to go.  Hitting the gym on the way to the airport and no time to shower after?  No worries — you’ll be dressed like everyone else and you’ll be extra ready for an on-board snooze (see below).  If you must, just splash on a little extra after-shave or cologne.   Tooth brushing is obviously also optional pre-flight — with all you’ll be eating and drinking (see below), why bother?
  2. Wear shorts whenever possible. Unless you’re headed for the Arctic, why carry the extra weight of trousers or a dress along with all that carry-on luggage (see below)?  Shorts are less binding on those long transcontinental flights and allow for better circulation to the sensitive crotch area.  Elastic waistlines are an added plus, especially if you prepared for the trip by downing a large plate of pasta or legumes before boarding (see below).  Cut-offs or cargo shorts are perfect. And don’t worry about exposing your pasty white thighs to all and sundry — remember your mantra:  “I’ll never see these people again!”
  3. Flip-flops vs. Keds. Dress shoes such as tasseled loafers or –God forbid — wing tips or heels are for uptight squares on job interviews. The only question is whether you sacrifice support for the ultimate comfort of flip-flops, or go with Converse high-tops or your favorite smelly running shoes.  While you never know when you’ll have to wrestle a would-be terrorist with a bomb in his shorts (which argues for those Converse bad boys), the flip-flops probably win for sheer in-your-face indifference to the opinions of flight attendants and your seat-mate, and will allow those fungus-ridden toes to breathe properly.
  4. Which Logo for your Tee-Shirt? You paid good money for your plane ticket, so why shouldn’t you wear what you’d put on to watch the Steelers beat the crap out of some wussy team from the Bay Area on a hung-over Sunday afternoon in your basement? The only question is whether to stick with the NFL gear (girls, you know you want to), or go with that guinea-tee you picked up at the Steely Dan concert in ’87.
  5. Pig Out Before Boarding. News flash: they don’t feed you on planes anymore.  So it behooves you to get in all the carbs you think you’ll need prior to boarding that cigar tube they call an “RJ.”  Remember: garlic wards off many airborne illnesses, so go for anything spicy and aromatic.  Wash down with alcohol, because God knows you don’t want to pay for a drink once aboard — they charge you an arm and a leg!  Failing that, a super-sized Pepsi will prevent dehydration aloft and make that comforting slurping sound when you suck on the straw. And: it’s a little-known law of nature that gasses tend to expand at altitude, so take in plenty of roughage to allow for easy “venting” as necessary.   If you get to the airport too late for a proper chow-down, just bring that big submarine sandwich dripping with peppers and Italian dressing right on board and munch away at your leisure!  You bought it once you were past Security, so it’s TSA-approved!  They can’t stop you!
  6. Carry ON! Another flash: they charge to check luggage these days.  So bring on the carry-ons!  Yes, the flight attendants will blather on the P.A. while you’re boarding about how all your shopping bags, gym duffels, caged animals, back packs (see below), six-packs from the trip to Napa, assorted stuffed toys, your favorite pillow, and roller bag have to either fit into the overhead bins or in that ridiculously tiny space under the seat in front of you, but we all know it’s first-come/first-stash and every man, woman, and child for her or hisself.   It’s often useful, particularly when sitting in the very back of coach, to slam your Samsonite into the first empty overhead you see as you pass through the first class cabin.  Hey, is that wimpy investment banker in 2A really going to say anything about it?
  7. One last word about luggage: Back-Pack! Those lame roller bags and duffels are SO ’90′s. Every kid in high school knows that what you really need is a back pack.  And the best part about a back pack is you can’t see what’s going on behind you!  This out-of-sight/out-of-mind feature not only makes for a more carefree travel experience, but provides a perfect excuse to “innocently” whack that investment banker in 2A (and everyone else on the aisle who boarded before you, those jerks) as you pass through to your seat in 33C.   Just be sure to turn around quickly whenever wearing your back pack on a plane, in case you missed anyone on the first pass.
  8. Security: How to Get Through It. As everyone knows, since 9/11 our best defense against Al Qaeda and other swarthy foreigners is the TSA and the security checkpoints at all our airports.  This is serious business, not to be trifled with.  For a while there were soldiers with guns at these checkpoints.  Now we just have to take off most of our clothes.  My wife is deathly afraid that she will have to go into one of those clear plastic closets where they will blow air up her skirt (which doesn’t sound so bad to me), but this is of little real concern since, thanks to the Tea Party, the port authority can’t afford to install them.  So just take off all your outer garments, including your flip-flops (which come in handy here), shove all your carry-ons (see above) into the scanning apparatus, step back, and attempt to go through the metal detector, which is that thing disconcertingly shaped like a doorway with no door.  When they send you back, you must take off the giant silver necklace you got in Santa Fe last summer, and the “Don’t Tread On Me” belt buckle with the life-sized armadillo on it, and put them in a bin and shove that into the scanning apparatus.  Don’t mind that wimpy investment banker fuming behind you.  He probably voted for Obama.  Once through the metal detector, get dressed, collect all the gear you’ve strewn about and proceed to the gate.  When you get there and realize you left your boarding pass behind along with your favorite set of jangly bracelets, head back to Security.  Repeat.
  9. The Boarding Process. Airlines board by group these days, back of the plane/windows first, forward/aisle seats later.  This is after those in First Class, Business Class (if any), the 100K Club, the Titanium Premier Club, the Mile-High Club, any companion pigs, anyone pretending to be an invalid, and any morbidly obese have all boarded.  Your group number will be printed in bold on your boarding pass, but don’t let that stop you from sidling up to the gate in front of everyone else and standing there like you don’t know any better.  It helps at this point to study your boarding pass with a befuddled air and pretend not to know how to read.  When instructed, move yourself and your pile of belongings a couple of inches aside and let the temporary invalids and Mile High Club members board, then resume your position until the next group ahead of yours is called.  Repeat.
  10. It’s Your Seat — Use It! Once you’ve boarded and stashed your stuff somewhere in first class, find your seat and check out how it works. Usually there will be a button on the armrest which, when depressed, will allow the seat to extend suddenly backwards into the face of the person behind you. Obviously it is your God-given right to recline your seat just as far as humanly possible  — after all, you paid good money for it, and how else are you going to get in a little shuteye after that big pre-flight meal (see above)?  And about that armrest: possession is nine-tenths of the law of the skies, so get a big beefy arm on that puppy and leave it there unless you want to share it with the fat librarian with the knitting needles next to you.
  11. A Word about Cellphone Usage. As you and everyone else knows, you are the center of the known universe. Everyone hangs on your every word and is dying to know what you’re doing and thinking, no matter how trivial, at every moment.  How appropriate, then, that God has given us the cellphone to allow you to propagate news of your thoughts and deeds through the public airwaves and across great distances on a moment’s notice.  It’s quite annoying in this context that the airlines continue to attempt to restrict cellphone usage during actual flight.  The answer is obvious: phone everyone you can think of and yammer away for every minute while you’re waiting to board, while you’re boarding, while you’re finding your seat, and until they close the cabin door and then some. You may want to set it up in advance so that your secretary or a relative calls you while you’re boarding, and it helps to have one of those Bluetooth earphones so that you can appear to be talking directly to God or some other unseen agent while you’re doing these other things.  News like “I’m at the airport” or “I’m boarding the plane now” is critical to get through not only to the person on the other end of the call, but to everyone in earshot.  To be sure they all hear you properly, it helps to raise your voice.  When the flight attendant icily demands for the third time that you shut the damn thing off, do so: it has been conclusively proved that operating a cellphone in flight will cause any aircraft to do barrel rolls and eventually explode.  That’s why it’s a good idea, when your phone rings at 30,000 feet because you forgot to turn it off, to pretend you don’t hear it or look around like it must belong to someone else.  Of course, as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac on landing you can whip it out again and resume contact with those who so very much need to hear from you about your plans for the next few critical hours of your important life.
  12. Your Child? Not Your Problem. Just because you’re biologically related to your children doesn’t mean you have to be responsible for them every blessed minute of the day. A commercial aircraft, staffed by professional caretakers, is the perfect place to let someone else deal with them. They’ll usually be tempted to use that long aisle as a Slip-’n’-Slide, leaving you in much-needed peace. Your kids are so adorable that flight attendants and passengers alike will all want to play with them, change their fouled diapers, figure out a way to make them stop crying, etc. Think of a plane as your day care-in-the-sky!  If all else fails they will usually take an uncanny interest in repeatedly kicking the seat in front of them, letting you get back to watching those reruns of “Housewives of Wall Street” on the plane video.
  13. Retrieving Checked Luggage. Once you’ve disembarked, you may need to recover the steamer trunk that you tried to take onboard but were prevented from doing so by that bitch at the gate. Should your belongings have successfully followed you to your destination (an outcome heavily dependent on how many other names you called her), you’ll find them downstairs on one of those metal carousels whose sole function is to quickly distribute baggage along its entire perimeter. You should nonetheless force yourself into the crowd hovering around the aperture (technically called the “bag hole” in airline parlance) out of which your items will, after a period required by the FAA to be not less than 1.5 times the duration of your flight, eventually appear. Grab the first one that looks like yours (i.e., black) and walk to the curb before realizing that you don’t recall putting a pink cowbell on the handle, then go systematically through the contents to confirm that it belongs to someone of a different gender. Return to the carousel and offer the errant bag to the first person looking desperate, and resume your place at the bag hole. After waiting till you’re the last pathetic sucker there and the carousel has come to a complete stop, join the queue in that dimly-lit little office at the back of the baggage claim area and fill out a bunch of forms intended to establish who the hell you think you are and why you thought an airplane was an appropriate way to transport half your wardrobe across the country.

We hope this helps.  If at any time air travel seems overwhelming or frustrating, just remember these key points:  you paid good money for your plane ticket, you do mean to lose weight in the future, you never dressed like your parents anyway, you’re a taxpaying American citizen, your fellow passengers are all pretentious liberal freeloaders, and most of all, you’ll never see these people again (especially that wimpy investment banker)!

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About Keith McWalter

Keith McWalter is an author and lawyer. His essays and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News. He lives with his wife Courtney in Granville, Ohio and Sanibel, Florida.