How to fly: a very serious guide to surviving the organized torture of the skies

I’ve spent a lot of time on planes and in airports in the last 15 years or so — from working in newspaper jobs covering first sports and then travel, to my own enthusiastic journeys, to this nomad lifestyle I’ve adopted now.

It occurs to me often that the Sky World, which commences once one enters a building designed to usher people into that universe, is totally different from Land World, and that in many cases, airport culture is almost entirely estranged from the culture of the city that built it. Accents suddenly disappear. Time slows to a halt. Shoe shining is back in vogue. It’s more unusual to *not* get a beer or bloody at 9 a.m. on a weekday than it is to drink three.

Necessarily, then, the rules and customs that govern these Sky World places are unique, too, even if most of them aren’t written or even widely spoken of in the streets (concourses). These rules aren’t arbitrary; they’re here to keep life vaguely decent and vaguely efficient in an experience that has become akin to organized torture.

This isn’t to suggest that with some secret ledger, any of this will be comfortable or — heaven forbid — fun. This isn’t the 1960s. This is a moment in time to endure, not enjoy, and thus this guide is designed to minimize your misery rather than boost your bliss.

That’s the point, here: there will be no bliss, but there could be anguish in place of that expected dead-inside feeling — if not for you, then likely for your seatmate.

And whether you acknowledge these rules or not, to break them is to make an egregious, ignorant gaffe in a foreign country; an unforgivable sin that could have been avoided with just a little research, perhaps a local’s tour.

Well, here I am, ready and willing to show you around on my virtual tarmac cart and keep you from trying to enter the temple wearing shorts. You will not have fun. You will not want to see another person for several hours. But you will probably make it to your destination in one piece.



First things first. Prepare to fly in 8 steps:

  • Buy a ticket and get something out of it. Get a credit card with travel perks. Or start being loyal to a single airline (any of them, it doesn’t matter, they’re all bad). Whatever it is, don’t be a schmuck: find a way to build up points or miles that will give you something in return for your decision to travel via torture chamber. Respect yourself.
  • Choose your seat. Do this ahead of time, or the airline will work hard to maniacally give you the absolute, without-a-doubt, worst seat on the plane — a middle seat on poop row, every time. It might be on purpose, to punish you for being so flippant with your flying experience. They always deny it, but look at the facts, the trends. When you check in online (always check in online), double check this seat and move if there are some empty or partially empty rows, regardless of how far back they are on the plane. There’s a chance they’ll stay that way, and fewer people trump faster deplaning every time.
  • Download music/podcasts/movies. In order to have an abundance of distractions and diversions for unwanted conversations.
  • Make a survival kit. Contents may include:
          • Book, laptop (distraction and diversion for unwanted conversations)
          • Ear buds (distraction and diversion for unwanted conversations)
          • Moisturizer and lip gloss (planes get dry)
          • Tissues (planes get dry)
          • Bottled water (planes get dry and service gets slow)
          • Phone and laptop chargers (plane rides get long)
          • A stealthy bottle of something strong
          • Pepper spray
  • Otherwise pack as lightly as possible. Only one thing is worse than walking through packed airports knowing what lies ahead; doing so with tons of bags. Simply going through the bag drop or security lines with a heavy load will make you miserable. So here’s the deal: you’re allowed no more than three pair of shoes, ever. Buy some packing cubes. If I can live for two years out of a carry-on backpack, you can probably do nine days on Italy’s southern coast.
  • Prepare for the war zone. Don’t be the person who backs up the whole security line collecting your shampoos and moisturizers; make sure your liquids and your electronic devices are in places you can pull them out in under 15 seconds lest you find yourself the subject of 47 death stares. Wear easy-to-remove shoes. Chug your water. Know where everything is.
  • Wear layers. It’s a known scientific fact that airline thermostats are physically incapable of producing a comfortable temperature. You will either be dripping with sweat or shivering with cold. Be prepared: wear a tank top, a t-shirt, a sweater, a second sweater, a coat, and have gloves and a winter hat and a bikini at the ready.
  • Get a drink. If I need to explain this, you’re not listening.


How to pass through security:

Quickly and with purpose. Don’t abandon your belongings. Don’t make jokes. Start disrobing before you’ve even reached the assembly line. Unpack and organize your belongings in the bins as a bird in flight: the person in front of you moves, you move, mid-shoe removal, mid-belt removal. You are in the midst of a dance, a very solemn and debasing dance based on the single objective of not getting snapped at by the TSA agents.

How to walk through the airport:

Move fast or get out of the way.

How to board a plane:

Quickly and with purpose. Don’t talk to anyone (hello to the captain and crew, however, is reasonable). Don’t sling your elbows or your bags around. Walk as though you are taking a DUI test in the street: straighter and taller than you ever have, and curl your bags in front of you like you’re holding a bomb you don’t dare dropping or scraping a seat. Don’t you dare pass over your seat and try to work your way back. Shove your bag up into the bins real swiftly. Take a seat.



An elementary explainer of each plane seat position:


The perk: Dreamy views, all flight long

When to choose it: You prioritize those views over general comfort; you have a large bladder; you just took two muscle relaxers and an Ambian.

Your intrinsic duty: Essentially staying put as much as possible. Do not choose this seat if you’re going to chug a Venti iced latte AND a Bloody Mary. Do not sit here if you want to roam the aisle mid-flight, or if you’re hoping to hop up as soon as the seatbelt light dings upon arrival. Your job, as a window-seater, is to be invisible, window dressing extended into a human-sized form pressed against it. 

Your intrinsic right: Control of the window shade. Yeah, whether you wanna shut it down and snooze, keep it open and feed your inner sun goddess or go halfway for that perfect out-of-the-eyes, onto-your-book light, it’s your decision and there ain’t nobody who gets to tell you differently.


The perk: legroom

When to choose it: You have long legs; you are a serial urinator; you want to get off the flight really quickly; you currently have a stomach virus.

Your intrinsic duty: Getting up to let people pee (do NOT make someone crawl over you), getting up the moment the seatbelt light dings after landing, flagging down flight attendants when they don’t hear your row mates.

Your intrinsic right: priority in food, drinks, deplaning.


The perk: None.

When to choose it: Never.

Your intrinsic duty: None, you are forgiven for all and the entire plane is crying on the inside for you.

Your intrinsic right: Both arm rests. You may forcefully shove anyone who ignores this unspoken policy.


A flow chart determining whether your seat-mate wants to talk to you:

Fly flowchart.png

A list of unacceptable plane behavior:

  • Manspreading.
  • Removing socks.
  • Kicking seat.
  • Using the arm rest in front of you as a foot rest.
  • Swiping the touch screen with your toes.
  • Any other gross foot-related offenses.
  • Clipping nails.
  • Filing nails.
  • Any other gross nail-related offenses.
  • Hair brushing.
  • Hair combing.
  • Repeatedly cracking knuckles.
  • Nervous shaking twitch, especially if it a) makes noise or b) hits your neighbor.
  • Farting.
  • Flossing.
  • Loud sighs.
  • Phone talking (before or after landing).
  • Failing to put your devices on silent (I do not want to hear your text taps nor the special effects of your kid’s video games).
  • Listening to music loud enough for your neighbor to hear it through your headphones.
  • Whistling.
  • Singing.
  • Humming.
  • Snapping to the beat.
  • Reacting loudly to the news/your texts/a book/anything. (Wow. Oh my god. Reaaaaalllllyyy.)
  • Slurping.
  • Open-mouthed chewing.
  • Eating anything that includes eggs/fish/raw onions.
  • Tapping on things.
  • Picking ear wax.
  • Picking nose.
  • Picking butt/wedgie.

An admittedly biased debate on whether reclining your seat back is an act of aggression in this age of air travel:

Not an act of aggression: Sometimes I’m tired and I just wanna recline.

Its an act of aggression: A recliner is literally popping your ever-so-small personal bubble and barging into your space; these seats are minuscule and a reclined seat in front of you makes them almost inhumane; it is nearly impossible to use a laptop or get anything out of your bag with a reclined seat in front of you; a reclined seat is an unconscious statement that says “my comfort is more important than yours.”

How to deplane:

Wait patiently until it is your row’s turn to deplane at which point you should have your seatbelt off, have all your belongings collected and be ready to spring forward toward the exit. If you need to get your bag from the overhead bin, you should already know exactly where it is. If it is BEHIND you and you haven’t already gotten someone to pass it to you you must wait until EVERYONE is deplaned, this is non-negotiable.

Thank you for coming on the tour, everyone; I hope you learned something. Go forth, and avoid death stares. Move with purpose. Fly with dignity. And don’t forget to offset your carbon emissions.


2 thoughts on “How to fly: a very serious guide to surviving the organized torture of the skies

  1. The flow chart was enormously helpful, although reasonable people can differ on whether determining that your seat mate wants to talk is occasion for a “congrats.” But even if you DON’T want them to want to talk, you can use the chart to find ways to send them that message. Which makes it even MORE valuable!

    Great stuff!

    1. Haha it was kind of made from the perspective of someone who is itching to talk to demonstrate that …most people don’t! I’m in your camp.

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