Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 2 of 6)

Christian Heilmann covers the different stages of travelling for IT conferences in this six part series. Be sure to read part one.

Dealing with discomfort and public humiliation

In the first installment of this series we talked about how to pack for a trip and how to get to the airport. Now it is time to quickly talk about the ins and outs of your journey from the entrance of the airport to the plane. And an arduous journey it can be.

Once you come out of your taxi/car/public transport your main task is to check in and get to your gate. Focus on this. Have your papers or emails ready – some airports don’t even let you in without a boarding receipt. There is nothing before security at an airport worth while for you as a traveller. Restaurants, healing shops and other facilities before security are for people who pick up other people who just arrived – you’ll only be in their way. Don’t bother with any of those – instead proceed to the check-in immediately. For there are a few obstacles in your way that might make you miss your plane even if you came in time:

  • Other passengers
  • Check-in
  • Passport Control
  • Security

Hell is other passengers

Probably the biggest obstacle is other passengers. Rocket scientists, asthma brain surgeons and theoretical physicists are prone to turn into total tools as soon as they are faced with an airport check-in process. The simple rules of happiness in check-in are:

  • Carry no liquids
  • Have no metal objects distributed all over your clothing
  • Have all your information on you (passport, flight time, airline, flight number or reservation code)
  • Carry a pen – you will have to fill out a lot of random forms in some places (India being the masters of this feat)

This should be pretty simple but you will find yourself stuck at security behind people who forget keychains that would make a medieval jailer blush with envy, are amazed that the half litre bottle of vodka or machete in their hand luggage is not OK to take through or wonder why a metal belt buckle the size of a baby elephant might register on a metal detector. These are also the same people who stand on horizontal walkways built to accelerate your progress or stand as if struck by lighting at the end of an escalator looking around for divine input on how to read signs with an arrow on them instead of moving out of the way of you who is stuck on an escalator that is actually moving you towards these human statues of ineptitude.

Keeping that in mind the first rule of getting into the airport is to stay clear of people likely to be in your way: huge groups of tourists, people carrying lots of printouts of their flight information and with dozens of little bags and families with lots of children. Business travellers and people with light luggage and clothes are a safer bet but you might get some bad surprises there, too.

Checking in

A lot of airlines have great online check-in systems. You can fill in all the things you need, print your boarding pass and be on your merry way past everybody in the airport straight to the “Bag drop” areas where you put your bag on a conveyor belt, have a nice chat with the clerk and be on your journey towards Mordor (otherwise known as airport security). If you cannot print out your boarding pass, checking in online is pointless as I have yet to encounter a check-in machine that remembered what I did online (this might be a BA thing).

Depending on the airport you have to queue either at a desk to wait for a clerk to check you in or you queue for a check-in terminal to tell you after entering a lot of details that you have to go to a desk to get a clerk to check you in. This can be a good thing though – if your check-in on the terminal fails this could be a sign that you have been upgraded to a better class (it happens!).

This process gets much better when you reach a certain frequent flyer status – you get your own desks and you have a frequent flyer card that has all your data on it to swipe at the terminal. One of the perks to look out for.

Some airports won’t let you get in if you haven’t got a paper printout of your travel details but in most cases this is not needed. Very sophisticated airlines (Lufthansa was the first to do that) give you a message on your phone with a 2D barcode to scan at the gate – I wished this was the norm.

When you drop your luggage you will be asked once more the questions you already answered online and on the terminal you tried or did check-in on: did you pack your bags yourself, have you been asked to carry anything and could somebody have interfered with your luggage. This is no time for attempts of humour – simply say yes, no and no (even if you had your luggage picked up from your room and delivered to the taxi by some random hotel clerk which is the normal and only way hotels do it in Asia). Amazingly enough acetylene torches or firearms should also not be in your luggage unless you are on a peace mission or about to go and weld some oil rig in the North Sea.

Passport control

Once you are checked in and got rid of your luggage hopefully to arrive where you are going (and hopefully at the same time) it is time to brave the passport control. Smile, open your passport at the right page, say a little prayer and nod when the (most of the time moustachioed) official has questions for you – clever things like “is this your passport?” – answer truthfully and quickly. I found smiling and asking “how do you do” helps to disarm them a bit first. I normally also keep the boarding pass on the page of the passport that has the visa for the country I am visiting – that also speeds things up.

Mount Doom – otherwise known as airport security

Being a traveller with the frequency of my trips I can safely say that airport security has become one of the bigger annoyances in my life. I am tempted to go there, strip naked down to my shorts and drop the rest of my belongings in a pile on the conveyor belt.

However, even that will not be the right procedure. There is no common logic or sense in the way different airports handle the issue of making sure that evildoers can not bring dangerous goods on a plane. At some airports you need to take your laptop out of the bag and put it in an own tray, at others you have to keep it in. Sometimes you need to remove belts and shoes, other times you don’t. I’ve had razors, deodorant, toothpaste and even a bottle of water in my hand luggage and got them through at times – at other times I had to give away a bottle of perfume I just bought because I failed to keep the receipt.

There is also no human or clever social interaction in most airport security. The poor people working at the belts spend their day repeating themselves over and over again reminding travelers about no liquids and taking off shoes and taking out laptops whilst this could be very obvious big signs for them to point at and they would be able to only address issues instead of constantly shouting and being annoyed. I find it a terribly stressful and annoying experience to go through airport security – and when it comes to security this is the worst way of making people feel. Social engineering works by making people feel rushed and uneasy – and this is what current security checks do to people on both sides of the scanner belt.

So I keep my sanity by coming up with things one could do to ease the tension but never should do. There is no humour allowed and everything you do that is out of the ordinary will get you into trouble, other people even more delayed or actually allow real security threats to go unnoticed. The theatre in my head goes like this though:

  • When asked if I have any liquids, knives or glass in my hand luggage I could just say “no, I am flying business this time and I will get my bottle of wine and cutlery on the plane – no need to bring my own”.
  • I could speed up the body search when the security guard pats your legs and back by moaning softly and saying “ouhhh, you got really strong hands, did you know that?” whilst winking.
  • Keep a surprise in my hand luggage that throws people off – maybe something related to taxidermy. “Sir, what is this?” “This is my pet duck-beaked platypus Alfred!” “This is a dead animal.” “That is your point of view. I love Alfred, he is a good friend. I preparated him myself. I think he likes you.” “Sir, I am not sure I can let you bring that on board” “Oh, really? There is nothing to the procedure, really. You got lovely skin by the way – worthy of keeping in its current state for future generations…”

Or something like that. As it is, I take off my shoes, take out my belt, feel my trousers slipping and listen to the shouting and the endure the rushing and annoyances of other passengers forgetting what not to bring in their hand luggage as there is no way around it right now. I make it as easy as possible by having a back pack with an extra compartment for my laptop so I can slip it out quickly. I keep my shoes unlaced before I go into security and I put all my mobiles, money and swipe cards into my jacket before putting it in a tray. I leave all my washing utilities and toiletries in the bags I check in so there is no hold-up. This can be annoying as hell when you only have a one day trip as you need to wait for your luggage but its better than having your toiletries taken away from you.

Past mount doom – waiting for the gate to be ready

Once out of security you will realise that people start smiling, you feel a ray of sun shining on you and you start breathing again. Now your job is to locate the gate and plan when you have to leave to arrive there in time. I don’t normally do any shopping at airports – most of the souvenirs or presents you buy for friends are cheaper outside and I wouldn’t know the difference between Kenzo Flower and Boss Bottled (most taste the same, really). I don’t smoke so that benefit of airport shopping is not appealing to me either.

That said, when it comes to electronics you might be able to grab a bargain. At one time Curry’s in Heathrow Airport in London had MacBooks £300 cheaper than the high street.

The next course of action is depending on who you fly with and in what class. If you are planned on a business class flight don’t bother with eating at the airport before the flight. If you are eligible to go to a lounge then there is some food for free, too but in general you are being fed on the plane anyway. That said, the first class lounge at Heathrow Airport in London has really good food. If you want to eat something as you are on a cheap flight without any food spend some money. You will be strapped in a seat for a few hours and the last thing you want is feel uncomfortable or needing the bathroom several times. One very ironic thing is that the vegetarian meal on flights to India in BA is a three bean something – yes that is what I want when my body is cramped in a seat for 10 hours.

I generally don’t drink at airports or on flights but if you’re out for a party it is a cheap way as the thinner air will get you hammered much faster than on the ground. If you are nervous about flying this will also send you sleeping faster (more on the problems with sleeping on planes in the next issue of this series).

An absolutely grand idea is using the bathrooms of the airports before your flight as you will be fighting for the ones on the plane with the other passengers.

If you want to use your laptop, I don’t know any airport that has free wireless outside the lounges other than Hong Kong. Power points are also not that common but if you look around you will find them (cleaning staff have vacuum cleaners). You might have to rough it sitting against a wall rather than in a (comfy) chair though.

The general rule of thumb I have is to arrive 10 minutes after boarding starts. If you have a fast lane access this means you can go in after the elderly and children and before the large mass of passengers. You’ll want to be one of the first in the plane as this ensures you have a storage space above your head and that you can settle in without people bumping into you all the time.

If you are late don’t get too scared. The general rule is as long as it still says final call and nobody calls out your name yet you are still fine. 30 minutes before take-off is the last call normally. If you hear your name over the PA at an airport you know something went really bad.

And that’s the airport tricks, next time we’ll enter the plane.

This entry was posted in August 2010, Travel and tagged , , , , by Chris Heilmann. Bookmark the permalink.
Chris Heilmann

About Chris Heilmann

Christian Heilmann is a geek and hacker by heart. He’s been a professional web developer for about eleven years and worked his way through several agencies up to Yahoo where he delivered Yahoo Maps Europe and Yahoo Answers. He’s written two and contributed to three books on JavaScript, web development and accessibility, lead distributed teams as a manager and made them work with one another and released dozens of online articles and hundreds of blog posts in the last few years. He’s been nominated standards champion of the year 2008 by .net magazine in the UK and currently sports the fashionable job title “International Developer Evangelist” spending his time going from conference to conference and university to university to speak and train people on systems provided by Yahoo and other web companies that want to make this web thing work well for everybody.

5 thoughts on “Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 2 of 6)

  1. Lufthansa, United, JetBlue and Jet Airways all remember my online check in settings. I never print out the boarding pass at home, just do it at the airport using the reprint option.

    United also mails me a bar code so that I can just swipe my phone and don’t need a boarding pass, however gmail is the worst email provider that you can use to receive this kind of an email. What you need to do is use your phone’s browser to browse gmail (don’t use the gmail app for your phone), then switch to plain html web view (the default will be mobile view), then open the email and click on the link in there. That brings up a new page with your boarding pass. You can use that, or just download the image from that page. If you download the image though, you can’t really read your seat number or gate number since it’s all QR.

    Regarding free wifi, I’ve been able to use free wifi at Hong Kong, Boston, Portland, San Jose, Oakland, Long Beach, JFK’s T5, Philadelphia, Dubai and I think also in Incheon and Berlin Tegel. The worst wifi is at Frankfurt where in most areas you can associate with the AP, but can’t get an IP. Mumbai has free wifi in the clipper lounge, and you can access it if you sit right outside. You need a phone number to register, but just use any fake phone number. I have some details here:

    As far as being late for a flight, I think the latest I’ve been is on a flight from Oakland to Boston when I arrived 15 minutes before take off. Not only did I make it to the plane before the door closed, but I also managed to get bumped up to an exit row.

  2. Neat article. I bought the MacBook! Slip on shoes also help for streamlined travel – when the staff at Gatwick pick on you to remove your shoes, on the plane when your feet balloon, etc. Being clean shaven also seems to speed up searches. Have you seen Up in the Air with Mr Clooney? Some of this is portrayed quite well.

    As I just mentioned to someone else, my father suggested issuing red hats to novice travellers. He would describe them as the people who clap when the plane lands or as you write, people likely to be in your way.

    PS I will probably fly 45-50k this year presenting on geospatial and location standards

  3. Pingback: Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 1 of 6)

  4. Pingback: Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 3 of 6)

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