Holiday travel is stressful by nature, but anxiety at airports is expected to reach a fever pitch over the next two weeks. Many people who have stayed away from travel throughout the pandemic return just in time to navigate a coronavirus wave driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant.
Millions of Americans plan on traveling for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and millions already have. On Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration announced its agents screened more than 2 million people at its checkpoints for the fifth day in a row.
“The airports have been packed,” says Miami-based flight attendant Sharmy Aldama, who will be flying on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the ensuing days. “It’s definitely more stressful.”
To add to that stress, there is the ongoing issue of unruly passengers plaguing flight attendants and fellow fliers. Through Dec. 14, the Federal Aviation Administration has made 5,664 reports of unruly passengers this year, a massive uptick from past years.
Before you begin your own holiday travels, here are six tips from flight attendants to make your trip - and theirs - a little nicer.
Bring (TSA-approved) snacks to the airport
Flight attendants warn that travelers can expect long lines at airport food vendors that can make it impossible to grab a bite to eat in time for takeoff. Before you leave for the airport, do yourself a favor and pack some snacks in your carry-on bag.
“Make sure that you have at least a protein bar or something of sustenance just in case there is a delay,” says Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Oakland-based flight attendant Elizabeth Simpson also recommends bringing a reusable water bottle so you don’t have to buy one at the airport to stay hydrated.
Empty your bag before packing
Because suitcases can be bottomless black holes, it can be easy to forget what gets thrown into them between trips: a rogue wine opener, a full bottle of hot sauce, too-big toiletries that TSA will toss. Those missed items will trigger the X-ray machines at security and slow you down, inviting griping from the rest of the line and adding extra pressure to your travel day.
To prevent such accidents, Nelson recommends travelers completely empty their carry-on bags before packing them so they know exactly what’s inside. If you are unsure about whether an item is allowed in your bag, the TSA website, app and social media chats are good resources to double-check so your luggage doesn’t get confiscated at security.
One last note on packing: Simpson has been telling travelers to pack portable chargers and ear buds.
Many passengers end up shocked and upset to find out some planes aren’t equipped with electric outlets or USB ports. Not all of them have in-flight entertainment systems, either, so you won’t always have headsets to buy or borrow from a flight attendant.
Give yourself time for extra-long lines
As Aldama mentioned, it is crowded out there. With millions of people on the move for Christmas and New Year’s, you can expect to find hectic airports full of hurried travelers.
“The security lines are longer, the food lines are longer,” Aldama says. She reminds travelers they should anticipate lines at other services, such as airport trams between terminals, too. Many of the people in the holiday rush are first-time or infrequent travelers.
“Understand that there are people who come to the airport who are not going to be regular travelers, which means that they’re going to take longer in the security lines,” Nelson says. “Give yourself plenty of time so that you’re not rushed and feeling anxious yourself.”
Simpson recommends giving yourself plenty of extra time - two hours for a domestic flight, and three hours for an international one, according to airport insiders - to get to the airport and pass through security, particularly if you are traveling with a large family or small children, bringing an animal, or needing wheelchair assistance.
Don’t abuse mask loopholes
Particularly as coronavirus cases surge again, Nelson says, it is critical to follow the core CDC recommendations for coronavirus safety, namely remaining masked on board.
Even though you are technically allowed to take your mask off while you eat and drink, don’t use that time as a loophole to skirt the mandatory mask policy. The flight attendants tasked with enforcing the rules for everyone’s safety will appreciate it.
“It’s not like when you go to a restaurant and you sit down and you take your mask off,” Nelson says. “We’re saying lower your mask briefly, take a bite or a sip, and replace it while you’re chewing or swallowing.”
Leave your mask complaints at home
The Biden administration has extended its federal mask mandate for public transportation through at least March 18, so complaining about mask rules won’t get you a special exemption. Anthony Fauci, the top federal infectious-disease expert in the United States, went so far as to say it may always be necessary to mask up on planes.
If you do want to complain, do not direct your frustrations at the flight attendants. They don’t make the policy, and enforcing the rule throughout every flight is exhausting for them.
For those tempted to lash out against mask policies, know that the FAA has a zero-tolerance policy for unruly passengers. The agency can propose fines up to $37,000 per violation, and one incident can yield multiple violations. The agency has proposed more than $1.45 million in fines this year. More than 4,000 of the FAA’s unruly passenger reports this year have been mask-related.
Pause to say hi to the crew
The easiest way to make your flight - and the crew’s - a little better is to show common courtesy. Make eye contact and greet the staff while you’re boarding.
According to a Psychological Science study, briefly locking eyes can enhance your well-being.
“Put your phone down for just a minute and look up,” Nelson says. “That personal connection is super important.”
To go above and beyond, take a gift for the flight attendants. Simpson says flight attendants love an unexpected treat or goodie bag from passengers. She recommends sealed snacks (candies or pastries), gift cards for coffee, unopened lip balm, hand sanitizer, chewing gum, vitamin C packs and moisturizing masks that help them regroup on layovers.
Nelson says receiving gifts is rare for flight attendants, and they deeply appreciate the gesture.
“They love the acknowledgment more than the gift,” she says, adding that “a drawing from a little kid” might carry the most sentimental value.