The Real Reason Travel is Fraught with Anxiety


mazHur But / flickr

Source: mazHur But / flickr

Airlines seemingly don’t even try to hide their disdain for their passengers anymore. It feels like soon they’ll just tell us they hate us at the check-in counter.

The airport is “opposite world.” People who otherwise barely move are seen sprinting to nowhere. High fashion is Ugg boots and yoga pants. Happy hour starts at 0700 and never ends. Stepping over sleeping adults in fetal positions is expected. All purchases are made within a 1,000-percent inflationary market. Do you really need that $10 People magazine? And it’s the last acceptable place to eat Cinnabon.

The Boarding Process: Humanity Has Left the Building

In few other affairs is your life status so publicly displayed than during the airline boarding process. This is by design: The airlines publicly grade you by airport megaphone, rewarding or demeaning you and other customers based on how much you have spent with them. The airline credo? “If you want to travel humanely, you’re going to pay.”

All airlines must move people from one place to another via the troposphere. The way in which they begin their process, however, can greatly vary and is most evident in the boarding process. As soon as the gate attendant blows into a hot mic, people leap to their feet into pole position, blocking all pathways to the jetway ready to blitz the ticket scanner.

There are notable reasons we act like Billy goats during the boarding process, including the following:

  • Mob mentality. It’s been suggested that as few as five people can influence a crowd of 100 to follow suit. Think #BlackFriday.
  • Competition. We want to be first on and the first off the plane. It often becomes every passenger for themselves, as if airports and planes are netherworlds in which common sense and courtesies don’t apply.
  • Impatience. People crowd the gate under the illusion of getting to their destination faster. A superior use of time is to find nearby space and do some squats and leg stretches to avoid the onset of DVT.
  • Baggage fees. Planes almost always have enough overhead bin space for every passenger. In fact, newer planes have increased bin space.1 But they don’t want you using it for free.

The airlines have mastered the manipulative art of anxiety seed-planting so you’ll pay a little more to check your bag or opt for earlier boarding. They depend on such fees to remain profitable. In 2021, U.S. airlines made an estimated $4.3 billion in baggage fees alone—with major U.S. airlines estimated to have made a combined $12.7 billion from such fees since 2019.2 Why can’t the airlines lose our emotional baggage instead?

To maximize profits, airlines create the illusion of grossly limited bin space, while continuing to splice boarding groups into ever-thinner stratifications. You board according to your value to the airline, with the last group boarding at a bargain price in exchange for a willingness to be degraded.

Consider the 10 tiers of the Delta Airlines boarding process as a depiction of the psychological game you’ve entered:

  1. Pre-Board.
  2. Delta One® (The illuminati of boarding groups)
  3. First Class
  4. Delta Premium Select
  5. Delta Comfort+®
  6. Sky Priority
  7. Main Cabin 1 (The last lot of semi-elites before the fuselage filler-fruit of overhead bin peckers)
  8. Main Cabin 2
  9. Main Cabin 3
  10. Basic Economy (We roll onto the jet bridge like the end credits of a sad movie. Airline personnel avoid making eye contact with us, knowing we barely chipped in for gas.)

To increase your anxiety and subtly pressure you to pay for priority, the airlines apply these divisions while trading longer boarding times for additional revenue. United boards in 6 groups, American 9, and Delta 10.

It would benefit the airlines to know that research indicates that flight crew’s competence and service quality are significantly related to both flight anxiety and travelers’ satisfaction.3 But they still wouldn’t care. Only one thing is certain: They will remain profitable, and we will remain uncomfortable.

6 Tactics for Less Stressful (Not Stress-Free) Travel:

  1. Anticipate your stress and anxiety. There’s nothing like travel to create or worsen stress and anxiety. Build this into your itinerary. You anticipated ghosts as a child. Now you can anticipate air rage and peanut allergies.
  2. Practice makes progress. Build up your risk tolerance prior to travel day to develop resiliency for the unfamiliar. Think an overnight or weekend day trip, not buying an RV and hitting Branson. The goal is to not make your upcoming flight your first major new experience since COVID and Zoom.
  3. Know your triggers. We make poor decisions when we’re hungry, angry, anxious, or tired. Being able to identify your triggers will help you quickly leverage coping tactics while not deploying an evac slide over a screaming infant.
  4. Plan ahead. Don’t go to the airport at 6:00 am for a 1:00 pm flight. Do bring along all the travel soothing accouterments you need for your mental and physical well-being. These might include books, electronics, snacks, medications, that silly neck pillow, and the contact information of those in your support circle.
  5. Strongly consider avoiding caffeine and alcohol. Both can leave you feeling dehydrated in a desiccating fuselage. Moreover, they can both increase anxiety. Anxiety kicks in with the caffeine, booze, and being crammed into an aerial toileting bus.
  6. Don’t fall asleep before the snack cart reaches your row.

Note: If anyone is Christmas shopping for me, I’m a size “window seat.”


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