n two decades of flying, things have never been as stressful as they are now, a cabin insider says. Her tips from 30,000 feet for avoiding airline chaos this summer. [Hannah Agosta/The New York Times]
Twenty years ago, with my life at a serious crossroads, I applied to every single airline, and a few months later, I was officially a flight attendant. I loved my new job, and it came with a completely new and exciting life.
But I didn’t sign up for what travel is like this summer.
The pandemic has changed flying more than any event I have experienced in my career. If 9/11 changed how we board planes and enter airports, COVID-19 changed the experience on the airplane altogether. It created a strain and made everyone nervous. It brought politics into a realm that shouldn’t be political.
In the initial days of the pandemic, the airlines tried to save as much money as they could. They allowed early retirements and furloughed many employees; on top of that, many other employees quit to be with their families. Now we have an employee shortage. Once the mask mandate was dropped, passenger counts started to grow faster than airlines could handle. Now we are short-staffed and overworked. Not just pilots and flight attendants but ground crews. You may not think about ground crews, but without them there is no one to park the planes, drive the jet bridges so you can board and get off, load your bags and retrieve them, or scan boarding passes.
Something that is not common knowledge is that flight crews have time limits on how long they can work, generally 12 to 16 hours at a stretch. Besides being unsafe, it’s illegal for us to fly longer than that. If your flight crew gets delayed and hits that time, it doesn’t matter if you have somewhere to be, we are done when we are done. The way things are right now, there aren’t many backup crews, so your flight may be canceled.
Historically, summer is always a challenging time to fly, but this summer is much worse. There have been thousands of cancellations and delays each week, and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight. I have seen many people miss important things such as weddings, cruises, international connections and even funerals. The tears are very real, for very real reasons, and there is nothing I, as a flight attendant, can do to help.
Travel is good for the soul. It revitalizes us and allows us to recenter. Sometimes you need to feel sand under your toes, smell fresh pine trees or immerse yourself in the sounds of a new city just to remind yourself that you are still alive. But the key this summer is to travel smart. Take as much of the stress out of travel as you can by planning ahead and being prepared. Here’s my best advice based on two decades of working at 30,000 feet.
If you are going on a cruise, leave the day before. Count it as part of your vacation. Stay in a hotel in a new city and explore. Have a nice dinner and a glass of wine and enjoy yourself. Wake up slowly, have some coffee and pancakes, and leisurely head to your boat. The extra money is worth the peace of mind. I recently worked on a flight that was delayed. A family of eight missed their connecting flight to Rome, which was the only flight of the day. They were going to a cruise which they would now miss. (Buying travel insurance is not a bad idea either.)
Always fly direct
That way if you are delayed, you don’t need to worry about making your next flight. If you can’t avoid connecting, don’t book the shortest layover, because you’ll be building in stress and the possibility of missing your flight. A one-hour layover is not enough anymore. Thirty minutes, not a chance. In most cases, three hours is safe.
Fly as early in the day as possible
The first flights of the day rarely cancel. Thunderstorms build as the day gets warmer, flight crews reach their duty limits later in the day and traffic builds at busy airports. Yes, that might mean a 3 a.m. alarm, but if your early flight does happen to cancel, there will be more options to rebook a different flight.
Download the app of the airline you are flying
These apps have valuable information. They will keep you from having to wait in impossibly long lines or to try to get someone on the phone if things go wrong. You can track your bag and your incoming plane, and in some cases you will know a flight is canceled before the flight crew even knows. The app can also guide you in rebooking a new flight if needed.
Think twice about the cheapest fares
Flights are full. If you buy the cheapest seats, you may not be able to sit with your family. It says so when you purchase your ticket. Flight attendants aren’t there to rearrange the whole plane just so you can sit together because you tried to save money on a third-party website. Also, be aware that if a flight is oversold and no one volunteers to give up their seat, the first to be bumped will be the family that saved a few dollars by using a bargain website.
Don’t be “that guy.” Don’t hold up boarding because you have your extenders open till they are bursting and you can’t figure out how to make your bag fit in the overhead.
Bring a sweater
Here is a flight attendant secret: We sometimes keep the airplane cold intentionally. For people who struggle with airsickness, heat makes it worse. We don’t want anyone to use those sick sacks.
Don’t tell a flight attendant they look tired
We are and we know. You may cause us to ugly cry right there in the galley.
Be nice. Our goal at all airlines is to get you to your destination. Stay positive — at least you aren’t at work.
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]