The Science of How to Fly Stress-Free Over the Holidays

From getting to the airport to avoiding lost luggage, a little research can help you have a stress-free plane trip

Don't be like this guy. Read our roundup of tips on the best ways to prevent and reduce stress during your airplane trip. (© Nick White/Image Source/Corbis)
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Airplane travel is a major source of stress for anyone looking to jet to another location. A 2014 survey of traveler habits conducted by CheapTravel.com shows that when it comes to the worst memories of a vacation, getting to, from and through the airport rank as the lowest moments of any trip. Across the pond, plane travel is met with equal anxiety: Researchers looking into British attitudes toward flying found that nearly a quarter of those questioned said it was as stressful as moving houses. And it's only going to get more stressful as the holiday season draws near—according to TripAdvisor.com, Americans rank December as the most stressful time for travel. (To make matters worse, new research from the U.S. Travel Association suggests that many airports could soon start to look like the day before Thanksgiving year-round.)

But not all is lost. Because airline travel seems to be such a universally anxious affair, there is an abundance of literature (both serious and scientific) that looks at how to get through your flight, from start to finish, while staying relaxed and healthy.

Getting to the Airport

In one chapter of his book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg looked into a somewhat counterintuitive claim, first made by Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler: If you've never missed a flight, then you're spending way too much time at airports. Ellenberg argues that while getting to the airport super early might reduce stress, it also deprives you of valuable time you could be spending outside the airport. The trick is picking a moment that gets you to the airport with enough time to board your flight easily, but doesn't give you so much time that you end up doing ten laps around the terminal before the gate even opens. How should you go about picking your perfect balance? Do your homework: two hours is usually the rule of thumb for arriving to the airport, but if you're only carrying on bags—or conversely, traveling in a large group with lots of checked luggage—use that information to calculate when you should show up for your flight. For an even more tailored approach, check to see if the airline you're flying has any specific recommendations. Delta, United and American, for instance, all offer tips for their passengers on suggested arrival times. If you really want to know what you're in for at the security line—the most stressful part of the airport, according to the majority of CheapTravel.com respondents—use technology to your advantage and check My TSA or download the TSA mobile app, which lets users report the wait times at security lines in airports around the country. Some airports, like Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport, offer similar services on their websites. 

Getting On the Plane

Weather and wind conditions might seem like the most obvious culprit for a delayed arrival, but flights hit a major roadblock even before their wheels go up. Boarding times are a major headache for air travelers; today, getting 140 passengers on an average domestic flight takes between 30 and 40 minutes, up from just 15 minutes in the 1970s. Most airlines (including major carriers like Delta and American) board passengers rear to front after loading first and business class, but this is actually the least efficient method for corralling a group of people onto a plane. According to research models, it actually works better to let passengers board randomly, based on order of check-in rather than location of their assigned seat (US Airways currently uses this strategy). Even better is the outside-in method, where passengers with a window seat board first, followed by those with a middle seat and finally those with an aisle seat (United adopted this strategy in 2013). The best of them all? Letting passengers board in order of check-in, but not assigning them a particular seat. It turns out that when you let passengers randomly choose their own seats upon boarding, the whole process goes considerably quicker. Currently, the only airline that operates by this policy is Southwest. If you want to avoid inefficient boarding time, it might be worthwhile to take an airline's boarding strategy into account when purchasing a ticket.

Staying Relaxed on the Plane

For some, making it through security and onto the plane means the stress of air travel is almost over—for others, the anxiety is just beginning. For anyone dreading the actual plane ride itself, choosing your seat wisely can go a long way toward alleviating in-air stress.

If safety is your main concern, you're best choosing a seat at the rear of the plane. In 2007, Popular Mechanics looked into 36 years of National Transportation Safety Board data related to airplane crashes that had both fatalities and survivors. Of those 20 flights, 11 of them favored passengers that sat in the back half of the plane, behind the trailing edge of the wing, and in seven of those 11 cases, the advantage of sitting in the back of the plane was striking. But in general, nervous passengers can fly relatively anxiety-free—the chance that you'll perish in an airplane crash are 1 in 11 million.

If turbulence really stresses you out, choose a seat over the wing of the plane—because you're closer to the plane's center of mass, you're less likely to feel the bumps. And remember, turbulence is a fairly routine part of flying. The last major aviation disaster attributed to turbulence happened in 1966, and plane design has come a long way in 50 years. In the last ten years, an average of just 34 people a year sustained any kind of injury due to turbulence (out of the more than 800 million people who fly annually). Of those 34, around 20 of them were flight attendants.

Worried about the plane's level of noise? Planes are loud—during take-off, sound levels inside the cabin can reach 105 decibels, which is about the equivalent of standing three feet away from a power mower. During flight, levels can range from 75 to 85 decibels, depending on where you're seated. Some levels, near the back of the plane, where the engine is most often located, can even creep close to 90 decibels, enough to potentially cause permanent hearing loss if sustained for more than eight hours. If you're concerned about noise, snag a seat toward the front of the plane, where sound levels are lowest. And make sure that you don't overcompensate by cranking up the volume on your headphones. A 2007 study published in Ear & Hearing found that as background noise increases, people are more likely to use headphones at higher volume levels (especially in-ear buds, which fail to cancel out background noise as effectively), compounding potential hearing loss.

Dealing With Lost Luggage

You've made it through getting to the airport, checking in, security, the flight itself and disembarking, only to find that your luggage hasn't taken quite the same course. Unfortunately, lost luggage—as opposed to airline crashes or turbulence injuries—is a fairly common reality for weary travelers. The good news is that the number of lost bags has been decreasing. In 2015, the number of lost bags dropped 10.5% from the previous year to 6.53 bags per 1,000 passengers.

Want to avoid a lost suitcase ending your day of travel on a low note? Consider avoiding airlines that have historically high rates of lost, stolen or damaged luggage claims. Regional airlines, such as Envoy Airlines, formerly called American Eagle, and ExpressJet are among the worst. In 2014, Envoy had 8.82 baggage reports per 1,000 passengers. On the other end of the spectrum, Virgin America had the best track record for getting bags where they needed to be. In 2014, Virgin America only had 0.97 lost bag reports per 1,000 fliers.

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