We take airplane travel for granted. More than 100,000 commercial airline flights are scheduled worldwide every day. Air travel is the best way to travel great distances.
A trip from New York to Los Angeles would take about 40 hours by car without stopping, but it takes less than six hours by airplane. Driving 10 hours per day for four days and staying in roadside hotels for three nights would cost more than flying. This is why air travel is so popular – it is faster and less expensive for long distances, but it has some complications.
Ideally, you would just get on a plane and fly to your destination. In practice, it is not so simple. First, you must take a taxi from your home to the airport, or perhaps a friend can drive you. Next, you have to go to the check-in counter, where your baggage is weighed and sent to the airplane. You then go to the departure gate with only your carry-on luggage, and at the appointed time, you get on the airplane and fly to your destination. Once you get there, you need to claim your luggage and take a taxi from the airport to where you really need to go. An airplane trip requires local transportation to and from an airport.
Booking a flight
Getting an airline ticket is much easier than it used to be. You can still go to a travel agent to make your reservations and get your tickets, but you can do it all yourself and save some money. Some web sites, such as expedia.com and travelocity.com let you compare fares of several airlines to get the lowest prices. If you have a flexible trip schedule, you can try leaving and returning on different days of the week, since traveling on weekends is usually more expensive. The price also depends on how far in advance you make the reservations.
Comfort is important when you fly for many hours. Passengers in first class or business class have seats that are wider and more comfortable than those in tourist or economy class, but these seats are more expensive. First class also gets better in-flight service and better airline meals.
Most airlines offer incentives by allowing customers to upgrade to a higher class using frequent-flyer miles. Airlines also team up with credit card companies by giving customers frequent-flyer miles based on the money that they charge on the credit card. In addition to the upgrades, frequent-flyers also are allowed to use the executive lounges at the airports where they can wait in more comfort than at the gates.
When booking a flight, be careful about scheduling for early hours, such as Thursday at 12:04 AM. This departure time will require you to check-in at the airport on Wednesday at 10:00 PM, which is the day before.
You have to arrive at the airport 2 to 3 hours before the departure time in order to go through check-in and security. The first thing that you need to do when you arrive at the airport is to find the check-in counter for your airline to get your boarding pass. The clerk will ask for your ticket information, and a picture ID (a passport for international flights). The clerk will weigh your bag and attach a bar-coded destination tag to the handle. However, if the bag exceeds the allowed weight, you will be asked to remove items from the bag to meet the weight limits. You can carry these items in a shopping bag with your carry-on luggage, or you will need to pay for excess baggage. If your carry-on luggage looks big, the clerk will ask you to try to fit it in the test rack. If it does not fit, you will be asked to check it in and pay for the extra bag. Once you have completed the check-in and you have your boarding pass, you need to go toward the departure gate. Some airports have buses that take passengers from the terminal to the gates. You will need to go through passport control and security check before you are allowed to reach the gate.
All passengers with international flights are required to go through passport control. You will need to present your boarding pass and passport. If you are wearing a hat, you will be asked to remove it so that the officer can compare your face with the picture in your passport.
Airports started implementing security checks as a result of terrorism and hijackings that targeted the airline industry. The security checks became more stringent after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The security screening is conducted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Any material that could be combined to make an explosive or flammable substance is prohibited. All liquids and gels are limited to small bottles. You will be asked to discard any large bottles, such as water or soft drinks. Your carry-on luggage will be scanned with an X-ray machine. Laptops have to be removed from carry-on luggage and they are scanned separately. You will need to remove your shoes, belt, wallet and place them on the conveyor belt for X-ray scanning. You will also be scanned or patted down. The whole security scan may need to be repeated if you have a connecting flight, even if you don't leave the airport.
Inside the airport by the gates
Once you have passed security, you will find duty-free shops, restaurants and magazine stands. You can buy a bottle of water like the one that you had to discard going through the security check. You may have to walk a long distance to reach your gate. You should always be close to the gate from which your plane will depart. Your carry-on luggage should have good wheels to roll smoothly along the corridors. Check the television monitors for your flight half an hour before boarding time to make sure that the departure gate has not changed.
Boarding the plane
Some airports have ramps leading directly from the gate to the door of the airplane. Other airports make you walk from the terminal to the airplane and then you have to climb stairs to the airplane door. Sometimes boarding is delayed due to bad weather or excessive traffic on the runways. Once the passengers have boarded, the plane may also be delayed by traffic or bad weather. Airlines are not allowed to keep passengers waiting inside the airplane for a very long time. If the flight crew anticipates a long delay, they may disembark the passengers and make them wait inside the airport by the gate.
Airplane safety procedures
Before takeoff, the flight attendants show where the emergency exits are located. Passengers sitting by the exits are instructed on how to open the door in case of emergency. The flight attendants also demonstrate how to put on your seat belt, and how to use the life vest in case the airplane should make an emergency water landing. This happened in January 15, 2009, when an airplane taking off from LaGuardia Airport was disabled by some geese that were sucked into the jet engines, and the airplane had to land on the Hudson river. A pocket in the seat holds information about the airplane and the safety procedures. The plane flies at very high altitudes where there is little oxygen, and it deploys oxygen masks when the airplane cabin becomes depressurized. Parents are told to put on their own mask first, and then put a mask on their child. It is advisable to keep your seat belt fastened during the flight. There have been cases where airplanes unexpectedly encountered clear-air turbulence that sent passengers crashing into the roof of the plane. Smoking is prohibited in all flights, and the bathrooms are equipped with smoke detectors.
In addition to the hazards inherent in the mechanics of flying, airlines also take precautions against hijackers and terrorists. Air marshals in plain clothes are on board many flights, although their identity is concealed from the public. The crew generally handles unruly passengers, but sometimes the crew requires the help of other passengers. The crew may also ask if there is a doctor on board when a passenger becomes ill during a long flight. Read about a passenger who broke a leg while flying.
Activities while flying
When you first board the plane, you have to stow your carry-on luggage in the overhead bins or under the seat. After the airplane takes off, passengers just have to pass the time in their seat for the duration of the flight. Airlines structure this time. Drinks and snacks may be served for relatively short flights. One or two meals may be served on longer flights. You may have to pay for this, depending on the class that you are flying. People who have special dietary requirements may make arrangements in advance for vegetarian or kosher meals. Water is always free. Wine and liquor generally require payment. In addition to the retractable trays for serving meals, airplanes for longer flights are equipped with small television screens for showing movies or flight information.
When the aisles are free and the captain has turned off the "fasten seat belts" sign, you may move around the cabin to go to the bathroom or stretch your legs. Some people wear face masks during the flight to prevent getting colds or respiratory infections from other passengers. People who get motion sickness or are bothered by the cabin pressure changes may need to take medicines to counteract the symptoms. Some passengers use blinders to sleep during the flight, and others use noise-cancelling earphones to enjoy music and reduce the sound of the engines and crying babies that may be on board.
If you cannot get a direct flight, you will need to have one or more connections to reach your destination. If your connecting flight is on the same airline, the gate for your next flight may be near. However, your connecting flight may be in a different section of the airport or even in a different airport. You should allow enough time for getting to the new departure gate when you have connecting flights. For example, airplanes flying from Europe to New York usually land in JFK International Airport, but a connecting flight to a point inside the U.S. may leave from the LaGuardia airport, which handles domestic flights. After clearing customs, you will need to take a shuttle to go between the two airports which are 12 miles (19 kilometers) apart.
Baggage Claim and Customs
When you reach your destination, you will need to get your luggage from the baggage claim, and then go through customs. Usually, the flight attendants will have given you a form asking if you are carrying plants, animals, or whether you have visited farms. This is to prevent importation of infective or invasive species into new territories. Also, you may be asked if you are carrying $10,000 or more in currency or securities. The money will be confiscated if you did not declare it. Customs will also ask if you are carrying liquor because only limited amounts may be imported. Passengers usually buy the liquor at duty-free shops in the airport.
In order to cope with the large volume of passengers, some airports implement random checks. You push a button, and if you get a green light, you may pass without inspection. However, if you get a red light, you will need to open your luggage, and you will be checked thoroughly. Needless to say, never carry anything for strangers and do not allow anyone to put something in your luggage. Many smugglers try to get drugs past customs by using unsuspecting passengers as carriers. A trip that would have been a pleasant experience can turn into a nightmare that will land you in jail.
Enjoy your flight!
In spite of the inconvenience of security checks and confined spaces, commercial air travel is the best way to travel throughout the world faster than by any other mode of transportation.