In the last month alone, approximately 678,016 flights were delayed globally, and 31,230 cancelled. On average, an airplane holds between 200 to 500 passengers. That’s over 327 million people at any given time waiting – sometimes for hours on end – for the delay to pass, and just under 11 million disgruntled passengers queuing at the airport help desk, hoping for free accommodation and a new flight.
In theory, air travel shouldn’t be so stressful. Checking in at the ticket desk is arguably easier than braving a Starbucks line on a busy weekday morning in New York. Airport security should be a breeze if you’re not packing any weaponry or, heaven forbid, a water bottle. Waiting at the gate can be irksome, but time your airport arrival well enough, or invest in a ridiculously priced latte at the airport McDonald’s, and its entirely manageable. The airplane can be boring, stuffy, and if you’re unlucky enough to be seated next to a screaming baby or someone who forgot the basics of proper hygiene, your stress levels will undoubtedly spike. But overall, airplane travel is just a monotonous series of waiting in lines and sitting down.
So why does a transatlantic economy flight feel like you’ve lost some kind of bet?
The answer can be broken down into three – entirely unscientific and subjective – key aspects.
Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film, “The Terminal”, prepared me well for what to expect while waiting at the gate.
I’ve yet to encounter a bitter old Indian janitor escaping from the law, but many of the stereotypes hold true: The seemingly busy young man in creased trousers and a button down, with his suit jacket carefully folded over the handle of his carry-on, and his foot tapping in apparent irritation so that everyone around him is painfully aware that he is late for his meeting; the tired-looking woman travelling alone with a screaming baby cradled in her arms and two toddlers who won’t stop racing around the gate despite their mother’s shrieks; and the bored teenager in a black hoodie sitting next to the window with earphones that do nothing to muffle the heavy bass of 80s rock.
Hardly pleasant company to spend the 45 minute delay with.
It isn’t difficult to complain about airplanes, especially after this year’s announcement that some air crafts will be shrinking the size of their seats. Even biologically speaking, airplanes disturb the natural functions of your body, leaving you in the dreaded state of jet lag. A 2010 study commissioned by Lufthansa even revealed that airplane food isn’t as bad as you think it is. Instead, “the cabin atmosphere—pressurized at 8,000 feet—combined with the cool, dry cabin air makes your taste buds go numb, almost as if you had a cold… [O]ur perception of saltiness and sweetness drops by around 30 percent at high altitude.” Granted, it’s unlikely one would find the small metal trays any more appetizing on land.
Worse, the inevitable feeling of fatigue is due to a drop in oxygen levels in your blood. Plane cabins are pressurized to simulate a 6,000 to 8,000-foot elevation on Earth, and blood absorbs less oxygen at those altitudes, which causes the weariness and the general lack of mental sharpness one tends to feel on long flights.
Whether you’re flying to a neighboring city or one across the ocean, the experience will feel like a dreary succession of busy nothings. Waiting at the check-in line. Waiting for passport check. Waiting for security. Waiting to board. Waiting to arrive. Back to security, passport, and finally, you’ve arrived.
But unfortunately, until humanity has discovered a faster and more efficient way to travel, the best you can hope for is a quiet gate, window seat, and the absence of the dreaded flight attendant’s announcement: “Flight ME452 has been delayed indefinitely due to weather circumstances…”