Stuck at the airport? 'Be the Bubble'

Duane Hoffmann /

Summer is the toughest season to take to the skies.

In general, airlines overbook planes and overwork flight crews. Road warriors resent having to make room for inexperienced leisure travelers. And no one ever takes responsibility for excruciating flight delays that strand passengers at the gate, out on the tarmac or somewhere in between.

Add to the mix schedule-wreaking summer thunderstorms, a rash of can-you-believe-it mechanical glitches (“Honey, what’s that brown stuff oozing down the aisle?”) and a new round of heightened security measures.

Perhaps you’re already re-thinking your summer flying plans and deciding to drive or stay home. I don’t blame you. But for those of us with non-refundable tickets, tight timelines or just too much geography to cover, it’s off to the airport we go.

Should we worry? Well, some days everything goes smoothly, even in summer. But it’s a fair bet you’ll end your travel day cranky, mad, tired, hungry and late. So no doubt you’re wondering: Is it possible to be a well-mannered traveler when you’re stuck at the airport?

You bet. But you’ll need a strategy for reducing stress. And a mantra. Take mine: Pack light. Bring patience and good humor. And repeat often: “Be the Bubble.” 

Here’s what I mean:

1. Be a scout. Prepare for the airport as if you’re going camping. Your carry-on should be light enough to allow you to easily traverse rough landscape. And you should always carry these essentials: a charged cell phone and/or a calling card, extra cash, healthy high-protein snacks (protein bars, dried fruit, trail mix, cheese wedges, etc.), a book you really want to read, headphones, DVD or MP3 player, writing supplies, sanitary hand wipes and a change of clothes.

2. Be rested. Make sure (ok, at least try) to get a good night’s sleep the night before you fly. If you arrive at the airport stressed out, you’ll be more likely to get worked up if and when something goes wrong.

3. Be there early.  Really early.  Show up at least two to three hours ahead of your flight. Better to hang around reading that book or having a snack than to be standing on a mile-long security line fretting about missing your flight.

4. Be Ready.  Ease your trip through the security checkpoint by dressing simply and making sure stuff like your laptop and that bag of toiletries are easy to get to.

And make a paper copy of your travel documents, including airline, hotel and car reservations, and jot down contact information for the planning to pick you up. When schedules begin to slip, you’ll at least be able to send out alerts.

5. Be comfortable:  A light carry-on and comfy shoes can make a difference when you’re racing across the airport for a connecting flight or if you’re simply wandering around for hours. For your outfit: think layers. Temperatures on airplanes and in airports can vary widely. And you may end up having to sit or sleep on the floor.

6. Be energetic:  Exercise is a great stress reducer. So if the flight is pushed back an hour or more use that time to get a workout. Ignore the moving walkways and escalators; hike the concourses and climb the stairs.

7. Be nice to yourself:  Don’t sit and stew. Airports have actually been expanding on-site amenities, so go shopping, eat some ice-cream, see some art, taste a local beer or wine, get a chair massage, or rent a DVD player and a movie. You deserve it!

8. Be attentive:  If you get caught in one of those “devil delays,” when a 20- minute hold turns into something much, much longer, channel some anger and frustration into taking very specific notes. When you do finally get to your destination, you’ll be able to write a more effective letter of complaint. Take names: Who was helpful? Who was not? Exactly how long did your plane sit at the gate with the doors closed and no air conditioning? And how many lawyers were booked on the flight with you?

9. Be Friendly.  An airport is one of those places that can be full of people, yet leave you feeling isolated and alone.  But if your flight is delayed there’s at least a planeload of others in the same fix.  Don’t be shy: Your new friend may have a membership in the airline club and invite you to tag along as their guest.

10. Be ready to bail.  “Look around. The nearest exit may be behind you.” That line, familiar from the speech flight attendants deliver before take-off, works on the ground as well. If you’re stuck at the airport try making a new plan.  It may mean canceling a meeting you didn’t really need to be at anyway, just giving up and going home or checking into a hotel and re-scheduling your trip, or finding a creative alternative route. Isn’t your sanity worth more than that $100 change fee?

11.  Be the bubble.  Bottom line: when you’re stuck at the airport you can fret and fume or step back and accept the fact that, for a while at least, you’re trapped in one of those life situations simply beyond your control. Put on those headphones and turn on white noise or some reliably-soothing music (For me, it’s NRBQ and alt-versions of Disney lullabies), pull out that book or simply breath and close your eyes. Just make sure you’ve set your watch alarm so that if you fall asleep you won’t miss your flight when it finally does take off.