De-Stressing the Airline Shuffle

Sometimes it feels like girding for battle, this process of preparing for a commercial airline flight. Whether you're an experienced "road warrior" appropriately equipped with the requisite roll-on bag and laptop case/purse/briefcase (your "personal" item), or a first-time flyer somewhat bewildered by the obstacle course that airline travel has become, our common denominator is the stuff heart attacks are made of: stress.

The list of stressors is very long: how to make sure you aren't paying too much for your ticket, which airline to fly, what schedule to select, whether to check a bag and which bag to bring, whether to trust web-based services or the airline for your ticketing, and whether to give up the security of a traditional paper ticket bought in person -- and all these worries and decisions are encountered before arriving at the airport.

Once there, the process requires understanding how to conform to all the requirements of check-in, having the right identification documents, packing bags and carry-ons correctly, dealing with parking, timing, and planning ahead to avoid starvation, as well as simply knowing how to find the gate.

Reprogram Yourself

In some ways it's surprising we don't require people to be licensed before granting them the privilege of becoming passengers, so sophisticated is the degree of detailed knowledge required to smoothly use the system and not hold up everyone else.

And sometimes it would probably be appropriate for the airlines to hand out Valium with your bag of peanuts.

Ever slump in your airline seat and buckle up only to find yourself lightheaded and extremely sleepy even in midmorning? That's PTBS, Post-Traumatic Boarding Stress Syndrome. OK, no licensed psychologists have signed off on PTBS as a recognized malady, but the effects are very real and very fatiguing. In short, it's not just the time zone shuffle that renders you somnambulant and exhausted at your destination, it's the stress of the entire process.

So how do you turn down that stress? By rethinking and reprogramming the way you handle airline travel.

Much of the stress that affects airline travelers today comes from tradition: expecting that even now, years after the utter destruction of the smoothly running system we once had, airline flying will somehow magically return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when customer service was the rule and the process was -- dare I say -- fun?

I won't tantalize you with the incredible differences, but think about your own expectations and how off-base they keep turning out to be.

For instance, you try to stay relaxed by not thinking much about the process until showing up at the ticket counter -- only to find a line half-an-airport long and ticket agents who seem ready to issue you a failing grade for failing to use their ticket machines. Or, you pack your bag like you have since adulthood only to be told that it's now too heavy (over 50 pounds) and you'll have to either repack your underwear on the spot in front of everyone or pay a stiff penalty. And with every misstep you're made to feel like you're taking a trip to the principal's office.

What stresses us out is not making a mistake every now and then, but making the same mistakes -- essentially doing the same thing each time and expecting a different result. We're diehards with the unwarranted expectation that service will still conquer all, but service is seldom in the equation anymore. The airline world is focused only on financial survival, and in fact not even Greyhound is as perfunctory in their handling of passengers.

The key, then, to not letting the process stress you out and create a world-class case of PTBS, is to dramatically lower your expectations of service, and give up trying to force the old system back into being. Otherwise you're engaging in process as futile as trying to teach a pig to sing (it won't work, and it annoys the pig).

How to Change

Before your next trip, spend about 10 minutes thinking through the entire process and making specific notes on how your expectations and preparations have to change.

First, the ticket process. Airlines are trying to train us to buy tickets and print boarding passes online directly at their website so they can eliminate costly agents. Your best method? Say goodbye to the paper ticket forever, stop fighting it, and learn how to use their new system -- inclusive of the "kiosk" computers at the ticket counters. Instead of a paper ticket, your most important possession now is that so-called "Record Locator" number, which you must be prepared to provide to get your bags checked and get yourself processed. The stress level, once you surrender to the inevitable, goes way down.

Second, accept the reality that the airlines are grubbing for every penny they can get, and services that once were free aren't anymore.

Curbside check-in, for instance, is increasingly subjected to a fee in addition to the tip for the man who takes your bag. And, yes, like it or not the weight of your bag matters -- not, as the airlines claim, because they'd like to protect their workers' backs -- but because flying extra pounds around costs fuel which costs money, and therefore anything over 50 pounds will now cost you between $25 and $50 extra. Give up fighting and chill. They control the game. Instead, weigh your bag on your bathroom scale before leaving, and if over 50, take a smaller second bag to check and take the excess weight. Once you throw in the towel (lightweight towels only, of course), the stress level goes down.

Third, you know who you are but you're now required to prove it. Give up the fight over the photo ID. If you don't have a government-issued picture ID, they will not let you fly or even pass security. Best move? Bring your passport. Always. And once again, the stress level goes down.

Finally, never -- and I do mean never -- expect to be fed on a commercial flight. If it happens, count yourself fortunate (or poorer for having paid hundreds for a slightly larger seat with about eight dollars worth of so-called first class food). BYOF. Bring your own food -- and water bottles. Once again, the stress level plummets.

Yes, I long for the good old days, too, but this is an entirely different industry with the heart of a bus line, the soul of a subway, and the financial attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge. So learn their dance, stay cool, and breathe deeply.