I’ve been travelling more for work lately; a few random observations.
There are different kinds of travel — for leisure, for work, alone, with a group, with family, domestic, international, and so on. The ‘travel’ here for me is business travel in the US. Flight-connection-flight-car rental-hotel-conference room-hotel-conference room-hotel-flight-connection-flight. That’s a very standard pattern, but quite different from, say, a family going on vacation or a grandmother going to visit her grandchildren.
Although I’ve lost my hard-won mileage status, which is painful, I was super excited to discover that I’m on a trusted traveler list for the TSA now. My boarding pass gets flagged and I’m directed to a separate line; I don’t have to take my shoes or my belt off, I don’t have to assume the position for the ion beam particle accelerator transporter machine. I just put my bags on the conveyor belt and walk through a metal detector. Its fast and simple and not very humiliating. (The first time it happened, of course, I thought I was getting pulled aside for “special screening” which I assumed was going to be along the lines of A Clockwork Orange.) It’s only available in a few airports, including LAX.
There’s no getting around the fact that travel in the US, at least the kind I’m describing, is stressful. There’s the hurry-up-and-wait rhythm of racing to catch connections and then enduring mysterious delays.
But the stress is compounded by the high load factors that airlines are running; full planes are hard on passengers. I know this is obvious; I think it is the single most important factor for my comfort on a flight.
I like legroom and I like good service and I like new planes and all that. But for me the critical difference between a comfortable flight and a cramped exhausting experience is how full the plane is, the load factor. If all the seats are taken that means that, in coach, I’m going to be sitting next to at least one person and two if I’m unlucky enough to get a middle seat. A long flight in coach with an empty middle seat is fine. Put someone in that seat and the decreased pitch, the torn seat pocket, the crappy in-flight service, the lack of overhead storage — all of that is magnified. I know we’re never going to go back to the days of flights that were empty enough to stretch out in economy in three or four seats across, but if we are going to assume full planes all the time it might be worth adding enough storage for everyone’s carry-ons. Just sayin’.
Another structural factor that adds to the stress of travel is the atrocious state of our airports. Our major international hubs — Atlanta, Chicago, JFK, LAX, etc. — ought to be impressive and efficient and beautiful. Instead they’re strictly embarrassing. The contrast coming or going from another international airport — Schipol, Hong Kong, Sydney, Munich, etc. — is dramatic and not in our favor. US airports are crowded and dingy and confusing. (Honorable mention here for Heathrow, which is US-grade bad. Pip pip!)
I recently dropped my mom off at LAX, an airport I know as well as any another. We parked and walked across the road on a pedestrian overpass. Before we got to the entrance for departures, we ran into a line that extended onto the overpass. So we stood outside on this dismal, worn out old bridge with wire fencing waiting for… something. I didn’t know what. There were TSA agents checking IDs, but we got shepherded downstairs to another line eventually, and then back upstairs. Everyone we dealt with was really kind and helpful, including the poor TSA agents. Several United employees went out of their way to help us, and in human ways, not just robotically performing their jobs.
But from my mother’s perspective, it was a total chaotic disaster, because the process was confusing and nerve-wracking and there were oceans of people and endless snaking lines. Plus, the whole thing had a jury-rigged feeling to it that doesn’t inspire confidence. Someone arriving for a flight ought to ascend a staircase or walk through an arch into a light-filled space or something more along the lines of Grand Central Station (a high hurdle, I admit) rather than the Port Authority. Especially, I think, for infrequent travelers, a clearly thought out and obvious circulation pattern is essential for a big airport. Frequent flyers will adjust, but I think airports need to be designed for the first time flyer.
One element that has improved the travel experience is the availability of consumer tools for mobile devices. I pay for TripIt Pro on my iPhone and I think its money well spent. Before I travel, I send my itinerary to my TripIt account and it tracks flights and car rentals and hotels for me. When my flight lands, it sends me a text message that shows up as soon as I turn my phone on: “Your flight has landed at Gate B-27; you have 45 minutes until your next flight which leaves from Gate A-14.” It’s fantastic. It’s also a single place for me to keep all my travel information; I’ve used it not only for business travel but also to plan moderately complicated family vacations. I also like GateGuru and SeatGuru and Kayak and TripAdvisor and FlightTrack (I have the Pro edition), but TripIt is my one must-have travel app.
What I haven’t found, though, is the perfect travel briefcase.