Save your holiday with this $15 airport life hack
IT'S NO secret that we humans don't really like being packed into an aluminium tube and hurtled through the air at 900km/hour for one hour … let alone 14 or more.
And when that experience is preceded by the trauma of invasive airport security together with a dollop of screaming children, it becomes a cocktail for a nightmare. It can develop into a messy cocktail of fraught emotions.
But don't despair; there certainly are solutions.
Many travellers underestimate the negative impact of an airport on our travel experiences.
According to David Lewis, a leading British neuropsychologist from Mind Lab, an independent research consultancy, the impact can be severe. The results from a survey done at Heathrow Airport were startling.
Dr Lewis, who coined the phrase "road rage" 25 years ago, found that a "growing frustration with the overall state of the airline industry was a major culprit of air rage."
The study involved 10 researchers, acting as passengers with a variety of sensors to test stress levels.
Dr Lewis said that they found that passengers passing through Heathrow's Terminal 2 and 3 can suffer higher stress levels than fighter pilots, riot police and Formula 1 drivers.
"The measurements were among the highest peaks in heart rate and blood pressure that we have ever seen," he said.
Dr Lewis said that just being in big crowds increases anxiety to some extent. "It's part of our primitive survival mechanism, but at airports the problem is compounded by a sense of helplessness," he said.
"This feeling is compounded by lack of information and the dismissive attitude of staff, who were themselves under enormous pressures, and one suspects even more stressed out than many of their passengers."
So how do we mere mortal passengers prepare ourselves for our Formula One race through an airport?
DON'T BE LATE
First and foremost you must arrive early and understand the drop-off procedures. I know it sounds basic, but there is nothing worse than running late and trying to find where to park.
And talking of parking, pre-book a space at a generous discount and you're already a winner.
Before you leave home collect all the documents you need for the check-in process and keep them in one easy-to-access spot.
And don't forget to print your boarding pass even if you have it on your phone - just in case the phone's battery goes flat.
JUMP THE QUEUE
Next? Does the airport you are leaving from have a Fast Track - at a cost - available to minimise customs and security queues?
Unless you're in business or first class, Australian airports don't have this option but many in Europe do and it's worth every cent - or pound. Some airports - such as Gatwick and Luton - also have arrival Fast Track and are a great investment. We tried Premium Gatwick this year and it was an outstanding success. The inbound queue would have been 45 minutes at least and we sailed straight through for the cost of $30 for the two of us ($15 each). The airport also has an outbound Premium Service.
Lounges are a much sought-after oasis for travellers and if you're not a premium traveller then there are options. Many airports have dedicated lounges for a price, while some credit cards offer perks such as free access to airport lounges.
Then you might consider the package approach.
For instance, if you're flying Alaska Airlines in the US, its First-Class fare, which is often not too much more than economy if bought far enough in advance, gives you extra baggage, TSA pre-check status for simpler and much faster security processing, lounge access, priority boarding, a much nicer and more comfortable seat and a meal with wine. Value? You bet, because economy travel in the US can be seriously stressful.
If you can't get into a special Fast Track security line, be aware of what you have to remove from your bags and have it ready in one spot so you're not going on a treasure hunt holding everyone up.
And whatever you do, don't be smart or insulting to security staff. Theirs is a thankless task and any aggression on your part may see you detained. This is particularly important in the US - either inbound or outboard.
Once through security, if you need a nap don't forget to set your alarm for the boarding time.
As you're having your beer or champagne for the flight resist the temptation to post pictures of your boarding pass on Facebook - as your name, FF number and barcode can be used to access your FF account and yes in some cases your home address.
Once the boarding call is made don't forget to double check you have those important documents and someone hasn't put a plate on top of them.
TURNING LEFT OR RIGHT?
In holiday season a variety of options open up to get into the pointy end of the aircraft. As the December holiday season approaches, airlines face the dilemma of who to upgrade to fill empty premium-class seats as passengers swap their business attire for beach wear and the demand for economy seats rockets.
Most airlines overbook their economy sections in the holiday season by as many as 40 passengers per flight and upgrade those who meet a variety of qualifications. The selection process and criteria for upgrades varies from airline to airline but the dress code is almost non-negotiable. The first passengers to get the business-class beds are an airline's premium frequent flyers and a few days before a flight the airline's staff use the computer system to look at the frequent flyer status of the passengers and upgrade them accordingly.
According to one airline executive, "just belonging to the airline's frequent flyer program will get you priority. We automatically reward loyalty."
However, with 40-plus passengers to upgrade per flight over the holiday season, frequent flyer members are not enough. The advice from one airline executive is simple.
"Get to the airport early and dress appropriately. If you arrive three hours before the flight and look smart and well dressed you are a prime candidate."
Quite a number of airlines ban their own staff from wearing jeans.
"Sure, many business and first-class passengers wear jeans - and worse - but they are paying $10,000, so they can wear what they like," the executive said.
"Our staff are on the lookout for people who look like they should be in business class."
In many cases, it gets down to a smile or a nice approach to the counter staff.
"Demand and you will get nothing," the executive said.
"A well-dressed, middle-aged couple are likely candidates for the nod. But if you have children with you, the word is 'no.'"
SLIP INTO SOMETHING COMFY
Now if all that falls through there are other options to make your journey more pleasant.
When you book, there is the option of buying exit row seats and airlines such as Virgin Australia also have a new Economy X product. The airline has reconfigured the first three rows of the economy cabin on most of its Boeing 737 fleet to give passengers prepared to shell out extra dollars an additional 7.6cm (three inches) of legroom.
Combined with exit row seating, this means one in five seats in its B737 economy cabin - 30 seats on a B737-800 - are now branded Economy X. And people who fork out extra for the seats on domestic flights also get preferred overhead locker space, priority boarding and priority security screening.
This option is available for an additional $29 one-way on short sectors such as Sydney-Melbourne with prices ranging up to an extra $149 on its longest routes to Los Angeles. A transcontinental route such as Brisbane-Perth will cost an extra $59 each way. Platinum frequent flyers get it for free.
Of course, many travellers fall back on their frequent flyer points to buy upgrades and thus monitoring flights for the lightest passenger loads - and thus best chance - is important.
Midweek flights are typically the best, as is Saturday when business travellers are typically less inclined to travel.
Failing all those options, it is important to check the seat guide and select the best seats available. Avoid those close to toilets or the ones where baby bassinets attachments are located (bulkheads) as you may find yourself moved on the day of your flight.
What aircraft you fly can make a significant difference to your experience. The travel agent can of course tell you but if you're making your own booking click on the flight number to open up a window that tells you the type of plane and thus seating options. Try to select the Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 which are the latest technology aircraft.
Typically, they come with the latest product offerings from the airline which can certainly make a big difference in the comfort stakes. More importantly these two aircraft are made of carbon fibre composite material which is much stronger than conventional aluminium and does not corrode.
Most aluminium aircraft are pressurized to an altitude of 8,000ft and have extremely low humidity to help eliminate corrosion damage to the fuselage - but this takes a toll on passengers.
This is why airlines encourage us to drink plenty of water and to leave the alcohol alone.
Some passengers may experience mild altitude sickness at altitudes above of 6500ft, the symptoms of which include reduced exercise capacity, fatigue, possible mild hyperventilation and headaches, insomnia and swelling of the extremities.
On the 787 and A350 the pressurisation altitude is just 6,000ft and humidity levels 10 per cent higher than other aircraft.
Another factor in how we feel are the impact of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the cabin. In fact, more than humidity, VOCs - alcohol and perfume fumes - affect how people feel at the end of a flight. The 787 and A350 have the latest filtration systems that rid the aircraft of VOCs.
KNOW THE CODES
On the subject of aircraft, another trap is that of codeshares, where one airline puts it flight number on another's service. Thus even though you book on a Qantas website and select a Qantas fight number you may not see one Qantas aircraft on your trip.
And the first you may be aware of the actual airline is when you board the aircraft.
Once again check on flight number and it will open up with all the particulars you need.
And this leads to the final consideration.
If for instance you are flying to the interior of the US you may find that you carry-on baggage that fits nicely into the cabin on a A380 or Boeing 777 on route to LA will not be allowed in the cabin of the small commuter aircraft that completes your journey to the wilds of Colorado.
Geoffrey Thomas is the editor in chief of AirlineRatings.com