Air Travel

Sometimes it turns to be necessary for scientific exchange and to develop new ideas to travel to international conferences. Of course, travel can sometimes be avoided using, electronic communication (voice-over-ip, remote presentations, videotaped lectures, etc) but for direct discussions about new topics and with new colleagues, personal communication is very valuable. Several international conferences require travel by plane. Personally, I do like aerospace engineering, fluid dynamics problems, as well as travel planning quite a bit! However, being locked in a metal box for several hours with almost no real space is not fun. It is mostly just annoying and can be a waste of time. So I thought it would be useful to discuss in a blog a few tips and tricks, how to make air travel more convenient and arrive more relaxed at a conference. I am going to discuss airport tricks in a different blog and entirely focus on the plane trip here. The suggestions essentially come from my personal experiences. So it is certain that I have missed a few useful hints. Please use the commenting option below to add anything that you find is missing.

1) Getting on the plane: The key issue is to judge the trade-off between trying to queue early, or wait and enter as one of the last few passengers. Being early, means more luggage space. Entering late often means a smoother trip onto the plane and more time to stretch your legs or use the time for work in the boarding area. The general rule seems to be that on buisness-oriented flights, there is more carry-on luggage so entering early makes sense. On commuting or not-fully booked flights, there is often plenty of space. Hence, it just boils down to a rough glance at the number of typical carry-on luggage passengers in the lounge and the decision is made.

2) Seat: Aisle or window? This is the question. Well, not quite. It also depends significantly on the type of aircraft, which seats are more comfortable. I prefer the aisle seat and tend to go for a seat as far forward in the plane to allow for quicker changes if I have a connecting flight. In terms of airplanes, if there is a triple-configuration, e.g. 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 seats per row then an aisle seat in the middle segment might get you extra room if you are flying alone since if someone else blocks the other aisle seat then the middle seat in 2-3-2 is really bad and nobody is going to want it. Hence, if the plane is not full, the middle space is an ideal hub for stretching your legs and putting papers, your laptop, etc.

3) Working: Even for expert frequent fliers, working productively on a plane can be very difficult. There is very little room, it is noisy, the air is quite strange through the ventilation system, so is the pressurized cabin environment as such. My recommendation would be to avoid creative work almost completely, even writing a talk is dangerous, particularly if it is a last-minute pressure situation, where all you are going to achieve is conveying some elements of what you really want to say. Instead, just bring plenty of routine work. Examples are typing up hand-written notes, run simulations for different parameter values, type up the report for a paper you have already read and marked, draft/correct any administrative proposals, sort/browse recent papers or watch lectures saved on your laptop for later viewing. Also: writing e-mails, which you always wanted to write, as offline drafts, and then sending them off once you land has been an effective strategy for me.

4) Noise: Depending on the type of plane, the noise level can really be annoying. A relatively simple solution to get rid of the plane noise is to use noise cancellation headphones. Obviously I won’t advocate a specific brand here but I found proper over-ear versions of noise-cancellation headphones to be best. Make sure to try them first before you buy them to make sure they are also extremely comfortable as one has to wear them for many hours on long-distance flights. Unfortunately, even modern technology cannot get rid of all types of noise. When I want to have it really quite, I use a pack of ear-plugs, which can be used as the first layer below the over-ear headphones. Again, there are many ear-plug products on the market. Since they are quite cheap you might want to try several options until deciding on one type to stockpile and just grab a new set before each trip.

5) Sleeping: In fact, the previous combination for noise reduction can already work wonders to catch some sleep. Generally, you have to feel out your own biorythm well enough to be able to trick your body to sleep in a situation, where it feels really uncomfortable doing so, i.e., sitting up, crammed between other people and in a strange microclimate. [Remark: If you fly business or first class, and hence can lie down in your seat, you are probably not a scientist and can safely ignore this blog.] Another important trick to get some sleep is to use temperature regulation. Often the air-conditioning system is on a rather cold level on long-distance flights. This makes sense as airlines try to save money. However, this can be used to your advantage by bringing socks, a neck-pillow, a warm jacket, etc. Personally, I use an inflatable neck-pillow to save space in my carry-on and backpack. The idea is to create the same temperature scenario most people sleep in comfortably, i.e., a relatively cold room but using a warm blanket. In addition, I found it very helpful to take the ‘red-eye’ flight when travelling long distances, i.e., go for the overnight version if available on one leg of your trip.

6) Food: The main hint is to always carry around emergency food and drinks (buy the drinks after the security check). I found still mineral water and cereal/vitamin/sports bars the best solution. You can use them if you don’t like (part of) a meal or when there are significant delays. In addition, I highly recommend trying to eat, what your stomach is most familiar with before and during the flight and/or to opt for the simple menu choices at restaurants inside the airport. Catching a stomach bug or, even worse, some form of serious food poisoning definitely ruins even an otherwise well-planned flight completely.

7) Infections: Being in a new environment with several hundred people inside a small space necessarily is a test for anyone’s immune system. Also, airlines do not really advertise that air-conditioning on planes is ‘clean and healthy’, and they would certainly do so if this would be the case; in fact, for some new airplanes those advertisements seem to slowly surface so you can judge for yourself, how clean the air is inside older planes. In conclusion, you can be sure that you may have to fight off potential infections. Since time zone differences can weaken your immune system as well, as it is difficult to sleep regularly, it is helpful to take precautions. For example, trying to eat extra-healthy the week before the flight and during a long trip is more than worth it. Also, if you are unsure whether you can follow your regular diet, it might be useful to take supplements such as certain vitamins as you do not have full control, what is served on the plane and in restaurants during your trip. The usual precautions of washing hands after a flight and not touching your face with your hands during the flight, etc. are all useful. Personally, I try to avoid flying during the peak of flu season (northern hemisphere, roughly around January-March/April) completely.

8) Other: As stated above, I am sure there are many other hints that are useful and I urge readers to provide them below. Thank you in advance for contributing and making conference trips more productive and enjoyable.