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Mar. 4th, 2010


Flying Sheep

I've had the chance to travel a lot in my life -- I've been very fortunate. Now that I do it frequently for work, however, I've noticed that very few people look really comfortable in an airport. Some are afraid of the upcoming "flying" part, some are afraid of navigating the airport experience incorrectly, and still others don't cope well with such a structured and rules-heavy environment.

Trust me: traveling is inconvenient. You will no longer be treated as the most important person in the universe. You will be forced to do things because some nameless, possibly rude and probably tired/bored person tells you to do them. Your experience will not go exactly as pre-planned. That's the nature of the game. That doesn't mean you have to dread your next trip, but some attitude adjustment can make the whole thing go much more pleasantly.

Fundamentally, the most graceful flying creature on Earth is the humble sheep. For the duration of your transit, if you behave predictably, quietly, humbly, obediently, and in good humour, you will do great.

Keep these things in mind:

- Once you're at the airport, people will take care of you. If you miss a flight, it's no big deal. So long as you're in the airport and trying to make it to your ultimate destination, a representative of your airline (Delta, Air Transat, Southwest, etc) will do their best to re-route you on another equivalent flight -- for free. You may have to wait; it's usually only a few hours but sometimes as much as a full day if there just aren't any empty seats heading to your destination. But they'll get you there.

If you're sincerely polite, thankful and reasonably cheerful about it all, you'll get much better service plus you'll probably make their day. It is not their fault that the flights are messed up (delays, missed connections, delays in security checking, etc). They get yelled at by rude, aggressive customers all day, every day... so if you're the one person who smiles and says 'thanks for helping me', they'll likely go the extra mile for you.

- Airport security begins the moment you step into the terminal. There are cameras, security guards (visible and hidden) and a control room with people watching dozens of security monitors (it's quite cool; my father worked at an airport briefly). They are all looking for someone who stands out. Who behaves oddly. Don't be that person. 'Flying sheep' are bored, a bit confused, and placid. They're already thinking about their destination. They wave goodbye to their loved ones, they line up, they shuffle forward, they remove their shoes and the coins in their pocket and go through the xray machines, they answer questions without getting defensive or upset, they wait patiently for their turn. Even if you don't do this naturally -- learn how to. It's part of traveling. Oh, and it is illegal to talk/joke about terrorism or bombs or hijacking... anywhere in the airport.

- I once passed the band members from Collective Soul in an airport; they were all primped and done-up, and were not-so-surreptitiously looking around to see who was noticing them... and no-one was. No one cares how good you look in an airport -- just wear something comfy.

Have clothes and carry-on bags with practical pockets. From ticket check-in to getting past the security checkpoint, you'll have to carry your passport & boarding pass with you. It's way easier if you have a pocket that's big enough for handy access. Also be prepared to walk a lot; wear comfy shoes that can be quickly removed for the xray machines. Avoid traveling clothes that have a lot of metal (big belt, tons of zippers). Never bring a suitcase you can't lift on your own and comfortably carry up a flight of stairs. Honestly, if you can't do that then you've probably packed too much.

- If a mistake has been made, assume you made it. Travel is a rules-heavy environment. Rules change, rules get 're-interpreted'. Mistakes happen all the time: you can't bring a bottle of vodka on the plane, you didn't know you had to pay for the second suitcase, the boarding gate had been changed and no one told you. Even if it wasn't your fault, it's not going to help you to get aggressive about it. In fact, you are far more likely to get a break (waived fees, etc) if you're extra nice to the airport personnel. And if they can't or won't do things your way, remind yourself that travel is just plain inconvenient. Not much we can do about it, sadly -- other than pay five times the price and fly first-class. :)

- Traveling is just plain inconvenient.
- Being polite, humble, soft-spoken and accommodating will improve your airport experience immeasurably.
- Wear comfy clothes and shoes. Pack as lightly as you can.
- How airline travel works. If you've not flown before, ask friends what to expect once you reach the airport. (hint -- it goes: ticketing, bag check, security, boarding, any connecting flights, then baggage pickup and finding your way out of the destination airport. Feel free to ask any airport staff member if you get confused about something.)
- Research the specific details of your flight: how many bags can you have? what sizes, weights and contents are allowed ? are there extra fees? can you book your seat location in advance? how early do you have to check in at the airport? will there be a meal on board? will it be free, and fit your diet? (if not, bring or buy your own snacks)

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