Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 3 of 6)

Photo Credit: Jérôme Decq

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

If you’ve followed the last two parts of this series we talked about packing, getting to the airport and going through the airport. You will now find yourself at the gate to the plane and you successfully passed the people who rip your boarding pass and give you the piece of paper that holds the key to your seat.

This paper also normally holds the sticker for your lost luggage so it is a good idea to keep that one. Its size and the fact that the sticker is just ever so slightly bigger and overlaps the boundaries with just enough sticky part to be annoying doesn’t make it easy. That aside, find a good spot for it.

For now, hold on to it as there will be a discussion on the plane if your seat really is your seat. The amount of confusion a seemingly organised concept of row numbers and letters A to G (sometimes H) can cause is always staggering.

The SSS phase (Sit down, Strap In, Shut Up)

Once you were told where to go and you located your seat and you are not in business class you will most likely realise that the allocated space in the locker above your head of your seat will be occupied by somebody else’s stuff. I don’t know how that can happen but it does – a lot. Try to wrench your one bag in between the massive backpacks, tents, extra life rafts, stuffed tigers and barrels of olive oil (or whatever your other passengers brought) but beforehand remove a few things:

  • Your laptop (in case you want to work – skip the power adaptor as there are no outlets except in business class)
  • A pen (as you will have to fill out landing cards)
  • Your passport (for the same reason – the information on your passport will have to be entered in the form again as there is no such thing as accessing the data you already entered on the internet or when the customs officer swipes your passport. Crazy talk – all of that. It would involve computers and somesuch)
  • Your headphones (spend money on damn good headphones. The sound is irrelevant as the audio system of the flight entertainment system will be bad in any case – the important thing is how good they are at cancelling out noise from the outside like screaming kids or snoring passengers)
  • Chewing gum and/or sweets
  • Handkerchiefs in case you need to sneeze and in the very likely event that there will be some spillage
  • A book (to keep you entertained without technology during landing and take-off)

If you won’t need your mobile(s) during the flight, shut them off or set them to flight mode and put them in your bag before stowing it. If you want to use them for playing, listening to music, watching videos or you need contact information on them put them in flight mode and take them with you.

Sit down and take off your shoes – put all the things that could slip out of your pockets in your shoes and put them under the seat in front of you. This means they cannot fall out of your pockets when you sleep or use the facilities. It is also a great reminder where they are when you land and you are a bit woozy after a long time of recycled air and bad sleep. If they are in the way of your feet then you remember you have them. If you hear a crunching noise putting on your shoes you were too fast. Removing your shoes is a good idea in terms of blood circulation.

Buckle your safety belt and you are ready. Unless you are in the aisle seat. In that case get ready to have to stand up again – probably several times – as the person next to you will have to sit down and will have forgotten something in their hand luggage.

The first 40 minutes of a flight and the last hour of your flight are completely wasted time. There is nothing productive you can do as you are strapped in, not allowed to move around and will have to listen to the announcements of the crew. These are the same every single time and a lot of them questionable (landing on water may mean you will survive – in 99% of the cases you’ll die during the impact. If you follow all the advice you can be lucky enough to survive 10 minutes before hypothermia kicks in – but no matter…) but it is their job to tell you about them and your job to nod and understand that the exit is where you will leave the plane. A lot of airlines now have videos for that so at least the flight attendants don’t have to do the swimming motions any more.

I am bad at listening as I fall asleep 5 minutes after being strapped in – unless the person next to me is interested in conversation or interesting enough to start one. I heard that flight attendants hate people who talk to each other on flights but I have to say, I’ve met very interesting people during flights. When there is no conversation I do fall asleep and I normally get woken up when it is time to get my peanuts and free drink. This is actually a good aim as these first few minutes are the only time you really will be able to sleep properly.

You will meet a lot of people who fly and are afraid of flying. One time I had a female police officer who was terribly afraid of flying. She asked me to hold her hand during take-off and landing and was quite amazed to hear that there is a train between Boston and New York and she doesn’t really have to take the plane. The other time I had a man who pressed his forehead against the seat in front of him, read from the Bible and listened to whales singing from a portable CD player which just calmed him down enough not to hyperventilate. I managed to re-assure the police officer that everything was fine but I knew I was beat with the other guy.

Things happening during a flight

There is not much order to what happens on a flight so let’s just tell you about a few of the things that make it more enjoyable or less enjoyable:

Children

I love children. I love their honesty, their pragmatism, their ability to be easily excited. Hell I am a kid myself when I find out about new things. On planes, however, kids can be very annoying and amazingly loud. One of the things a lot of parents forget is that a lot of the screaming happens during landing and takeoff and the reason is the change in air pressure which makes the ears hurt. As grown ups we close our nose and blow – much like you do it when scuba diving (I actually like the plop this makes) but that can hurt, too. This is where the sweets and chewing gums come in. A kid sucking on a sweet or chewing on gum will not get into the pressure trouble as the jaws are in motion. So give your gum or sweets to parents with screaming kids and explain that it’s for instant silence. Don’t give the sweets directly to the kids for obvious reasons.

Kids are also immensely bad at flight disturbances. You know those “holes in the sky” where the plane gets wobbly and your stomach says “can you please stop that”. As kids are likely to pig out on the free food on the plane and not as modest about stomach issues, this can be an explosive situation. I once had a kid next to me who threw up six times during the flight and the loving mother kept loading them up with food. Surely there has to be a learning moment about what goes in comes out after the third time, right?

Facilities, Washrooms, Toilets

Airplane toilets are to be used as soon as possible. The amount of deterioration of in-flight bathrooms is stunning. Within an hour it can turn from the comfort of a Holiday Inn bathroom to the john of a biker bar after a free bar and chili cookout. If you are considering joining the mile high club (I still consider it a myth) then do so as early as possible.

I’ve learned to climb over sleeping people next to me without waking them up when I need the bathroom. If your dexterity does not stretch that far and you don’t want to have someone waking up looking at your crotch just gently nudge them to get out of the way.

Going to the loo is a good chance to stretch your legs – so use the ones at the end of the plane and walk around a bit – always a good idea to keep the circulation up and running.

Food and drink

Airline food has been standup comics’ material for years now so you probably know all about it. I love being a Vegetarian as that means I get my food first and I don’t have to wait for the trolley to come through. I also once got upgraded as there was a catering problem and they had no Vegetarian meal in Premium Economy.

Airline food is a pain to get right. In business you have your crockery, cutlery and nice plates but the space restrictions in economy makes it tough for airlines to give you quality. As it is, you can bet your life that something on your tray will make it onto your shirt or trousers – if you are lucky it’ll be your own food and not your seat neighbour’s or because of a clumsy flight attendant (I once had my seat neighbour’s Cognac spilled all over me – that was “fun” in customs).

I normally don’t eat much during the flight as I don’t move and it just sits in you. In business this means I can order less, in economy I always feel bad for leaving a lot behind.

I normally don’t drink during flights as I get a rental car when I arrive. If you want to sleep and you can’t or you just want to get drunk fast, drinking on planes is a great idea as the lighter air accelerates your blood flow.

One thing to make sure you have lots of is water. You are effectively being freeze-dried during a flight, so replace as much as you can. If you have a weak bladder, maybe not so much unless you have the aisle seat.

Paperwork

As I said before, you will have to fill out landing cards. Instead of waiting for the flight attendants to give them out, get them during check-in and fill them out as soon as possible. Your brain will be tapioca by the end of the flight so get it out of your way as soon as possible. Help people around you as they will be slowing down the queue in the destination airport if they made mistakes. Always check the back of the forms, there is normally some hidden signature or date field to fill in.

Sleeping

Sleep doesn’t come easy for a lot of people on flights. I can fall asleep easily but I have to say, sleeping on a plane never is relaxing – you wake up more exhausted than before you fell asleep. If you want to sleep make sure you recline your seat, cover yourself with a blanket (as you will get cold) and put your seat belt on over the blanket so that the flight attendant won’t have to wake you up in case of turbulence.

Working on your laptop

Sometimes I work on my laptop but it is not easy. First of all I don’t like people looking at my screen. You can get one of those screen covers that prevents that but that normally results in the person next to you asking where you can get those. You normally also have to answer questions about your computer and as having a computer and not wearing a suit automatically makes you a technical person you’d have to answer questions about problems people have with their computers. There was a joke screen saver going around that had arabic writing and a countdown in big red letters which would stop any of these conversations but not everyone would get the dark humour of this one.

In-flight entertainment

Depending on the airline and class you fly with the in-flight entertainment can reach from free newspapers or a huge screen with a predefined (and inevitably awful) movie to a fully interactive small touch screen system in the back of the seat in front of you. The latter is more and more the norm and is great as you can choose from a lot of movies, games, TV and audio programs. The best systems have a way for you to stop and start and fast forward movies in case you need a nap or you want to skip painful scenes like any romantic conversation in a George Lucas movie. More annoying systems have a running playlist of movies without being able to stop or skip. This is especially annoying as you have to wait for all movies to finish before a new one starts. So if one of them is Lord of the Rings or the uncut original of Metropolis you might look at an hour of static.

Another big issue is that by the time you’ve found the right tilt for the screen in the seat in front of you, the person in front of you will recline their seat which means that you also have to recline yours, annoying the person behind you. Smacking their head is not an option but admittedly has gone through my head a lot.

One thing every system has is that it is prone to crashing so it is a good idea to have backup in the form of a book or a movie on your iPod or laptop. It is also a vicious circle as when systems crash they get rebooted which means that after reboot everybody fast forwards to where they got stuck which of course crashes the system again. This is why by now flight attendants tell people row by row about the reboot and not the whole plane.

Be aware that you are in a vulnerable situation – you are strapped in a seat and have no way to leave and you breathe recycled air. That means that whatever positive impression you get of a movie is most likely false. I’ve bought DVDs after thoroughly enjoying a movie on a plane just to want to burn it when I watched it at home. On the small screen even Transformers appeared to have traces of acting.

The most annoying thing about British Airways especially is that if you have half an hour left in a movie one hour before landing, there is no way that you will finish it. The last hour belongs to the pilot telling you a 5 minute information piece about the destination and the flight crew repeating the information about 10 times in different languages. Every time that happens your movie will get stopped and 20 minutes before landing your headsets will get collected. It is annoying as hell. Announcements starting with “As you just heard from the captain…” make me cringe. Yes we did, why do you repeat it? So always end your flight with a half hour TV series episode or some music. Or read your book as you will also have to shut down laptops and take out any headphones as you will have to be able to hear announcements from the flight crew.

Landing

Once the plane lands there is no need to rush. If you have no luggage you may be able to get a head start, but if you do you will meet anyone you overtake on the way out at the luggage carousel. The worst that can happen is not landing at the airport terminal but having to take a bus to the terminal. This means you have to wait for everyone to get out.

Collect your things, put on your shoes and jacket, get your hand luggage out making sure you don’t have stuff falling on your head. Help people get theirs out if they are short, frail or too drunk. Check that you didn’t forget something or other people haven’t. Have your passport and paperwork ready and slowly get out thanking the flight crew as you pass them. Take a deep breath and get ready to face the destination airport.

This entry was posted in September 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.

3 thoughts on “Confessions of an IT conference traveller (part 3 of 6)

  1. Particularly like the bit about not rushing on landing – everyone jumping to their feet the moment the seatbelt signs go off is a sign of madness: you’ll have another 15mins of waiting before anyone moves. And when you’re out, you’re still going to be waiting at the carousel.

    This is one reason why I like the very back row (and a window seat): I’m not getting out any later, and I get another 10 mins sleep. Then I stroll to the carousel and get there just as my bag’s coming off the conveyor belt. No rush, no stress. And if you’re in economy, only jerks care about being at the front of it. At the back, you’re more likely to get an empty seat next to you.

    I can fall asleep on the outbound taxi, wake perfectly for the inflight meal (particularly on an EDI->LHR early bird), be back asleep within seconds of handing my tray back and then wake on arrival taxi.

  2. Good post with several fascinating recommendations! I can’t say that I agree with everything you have written here, but there are a few key suggestions you have highlighted that can be rather usable on travel tips and associated topics. Please continue offering more information on this topic and associated subjects, as there are many out there like me who are trying to get to know the costs and benefits.

  3. As no electronics are allowed during take-off and landing, and you’ll get constantly nudged by crew if you wear your headphones, then a pair of earplugs is another essential – especially on Squeezyjet or Ryanair flights where they take the opportunity to use the tanoi system to bombard you with marketing spiel for scratchcards and so on.

    If you are sat beneath one of these speakers, the loudness and tinniness will drive your brain insane.

    Its also nice to keep the earplugs in as we disembark, shuttle to the airport etc.

    Wearing dark shades at the same time also dulls the senses and reinforces the self-imposed barriers sufficiently in order that you can convince yourself that this is not really happening to you.

    You are simply observing it, and keeps you much calmer as you watch the bizarre happenings unfold around you.

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