Plane Smart: How to Invade Your Airport.


Let’s have a moment of silence for a friend we all fondly remember and will dearly miss: leisure air travel.That’s right, the “leisure” part is dead and gone–but the “air travel” soldiers on, orphaned by the Airline Deregulation Act and held hostage by the price of oil, the largest cost item in the airline business.

So let’s move on, because that’s what life does even as we mourn the dearly departed which, in this case, seems irreplaceable. Nonetheless, we’ll all have a better trip if we leave the old guy dead and buried and consider what we have left to rely on.

So turn over a new leaf and begin with a new vision: travel is no longer a leisurely activity but rather–it’s war. Like any war, you need a strategy, valid reconnaissance of the battlefield, weapons, and the resolve to use all of these assets.

Here’s the turning point for any air traveler: you can be passive and let the air travel system decide for you what happens, or you can declare war on the air travel system and fight your way from point A to point B to your own advantage every step of the way.

Staffing cuts at airports and airlines and even hotels and car rental companies have reduced the level of live assistance available when you travel, and the system of check-in, security, interline connections, customs clearance have only become more complex and arcane. In reality you really have no choice but to proactively manage your own travel.

In short, it’s a war–and you should approach it that way. Here’s how:

Your Battle Plan

1. Intelligence: Know your enemy, find out where the opposing forces are and how many. You must get through their lines to even have a chance at air travel and the opposition forces are intent on keeping you out. Unless you’re driving a fifty-foot semi hauling beverages or merchandise, in which case you’ll be waved through the security perimeter:

Not a beer truck driver or any type of merchandise hauler? Too bad: you’ll have to cross the lines the hard way. But no matter, because this is where “Intelligence”–both literal and figurative–comes into play. You must find the easiest spot to penetrate in order to get to your aircraft. Do the required reconnaissance ahead of time.

Every single major airport has a website now that just begs you to visit–and you should, from the intelligence sense, so you know the unfamiliar territory you’re trying to invade. Look at the wealth of information you need to know ahead of time:

Click on the graphic above to see the actual DFW Airport site.

You’ll find parking information, gate and airline locations, entrances and exits, security checkpoints, rental cars lots and more. Now, you can really use your literal intelligence.

Leaving on American Airlines? Here’s a diagram from the DFW Airport website displaying Terminal D, the largest of the three American Airlines terminals at DFW:

If you were to view all 3 of the American terminals, you’d see how much larger and more spacious this one is. Does it matter whether or not your flight or even your airline leaves from this terminal?

NO! You simply want to make it through security as quickly as possible–and this terminal has the largest security check points of all terminals in the airport. Plus–if you’ve done your recon thoroughly, you’ll note the train connections from this terminal to all of the others in a matter of minutes.

Compare this to terminal C:

You can compare the relative sizes of these terminals better on the DFW website than I can reproduce the diagrams here, but the point is this: for the least amount of waiting, check-in at the largest, less-crammed terminal. If you were to consider auto traffic flow curbside (right to left in both diagrams), you’d observe another useful tidbit: people driving to the airport naturally stop at the first available check-in point for both curbside and counter check-in, so plan to proceed further down the terminal where due to human nature–less passengers accumulate for check-in or security.

Nowhere is this more significant than at Denver International Airport which, like Dulles, Pittsburgh, Portland and many others, has one main terminal that accomplishes security screening for all satellite terminals:

Again, auto traffic dropping off passengers approaches from the right, so passengers naturally stop at the first available space–and go to the closest security checkpoint. But there’s an identical security checkpoint on the other end of the terminal which is normally less crowded–use it!

This is an actual picture of the Denver International Airport security checkpoint that’s on the right in the diagram, the one passengers come to first, so it’s normally jammed. But if you look at the airport diagram, you’ll find an identical security checkpoint farther from the initial checkpoint and it’s half empty because most people have rushed to the first available.

Lessons learned: there’s really no practical correlation between where your intended gate is and where you must either park or clear security, because there’s inter-terminal transportation that will get you to your gate faster than it would take for you to wait in a huge line–and with less frustration on your part. Also, the airport information for your departure, connecting and destination airports can be found on-line and can answer just about all of the questions you might have regarding locations, gates, services and facilities. Do your reconnaissance ahead of time and out-think the obstacles to your entry!

2. Battle Plan: This really goes back to intelligence in both senses. That is, you need to have all of your vital information at your fingertips, and here is the worst item for discerning that vital information:

That’s right: your boarding pass is an awful way to keep track of the important data. That’s because formats vary, times may vary despite what’s printed on the boarding pass and depending on how long ago they were printed, flight numbers may have changed as well. Plus, times listed on the boarding pass are normally boarding time, not departure time, making it even more confusing to cross-check the monitors in the terminal. And normally, you’ll have more than one such card and sorting them out with your hands full of carry-onĀ  luggage and whatever else you’re juggling is a losing proposition.

The only information on your boarding pass not subject to change is your name and destination–which you already know, right? Fly smarter–use a smart phone:

I use this system as an airline pilot because it is active: I don’t have to search out the information regarding gates and times because that info is constantly pushed to my phone. This is but one airline’s automatic text notification system and every major airline now has such a service. This will immediately update you on gate location and departure time changes, plus, most (like this one) allows you to customize the information: want a notification an hour prior? And two hours prior? No problem, the latest info will find you and if it’s bad news like a delay or cancellation, you’re the first to know and thus first to rebook–also on your phone. Make sure you have your airline’s smart phone application installed and working on your phone and you can begin the re-booking process without standing in line for hours.

3. Once through the enemy lines: I can’t tell you how many people in the terminal will walk up to the gate counter and ask, “Am I in the right place?”

Sigh. Do we really have to play 20 questions? Where are you going? What is your flight number? What is the departure time?

This is what you can expect if you ask me if “you’re in the right place:” if you are very old or very young or don’t speak English, I will help you in any way possible. But if you’re an average traveler, I’m going to teach you to help yourself: “There are the flight monitors; look for your destination and flight number and you’ll find the departure information you need.”

Why don’t I just look it up? First, because the time and gate can and very well might change–and passengers need to be aware of where that vital information is. And if the flight isn’t listed yet, any planned info I dig up is too likely to change for it to be of any use.

All of the pertinent information related to your flight is at your fingertips if you install the smart phone app for the airline(s) you’re traveling on.

Often times this information that the airline’s application pushes to your phone will be even more current than any information an agent or crewmember can provide because it is updated instantaneously.

Plus, if you’re shrewd enough to bookmark the airport sites for your departure, arrival and connecting airports, you’re ready to find answers quickly and easily without having to search for scarce customer service reps at any point in your travel.

After Action Report

You now know where to find, bookmark and save the vital information pertaining to your travel. Even five years ago, the push technology that today can keep you fully informed didn’t exist or if it did, it was too large to store on a handheld device.

That’s no longer true. Now, you can bookmark airport websites, download and save airport diagrams, and keep all of your itinerary at your fingertips. Once you have this information plus real-time data pushes from the airline to your mobile device, you won’t find yourself chasing the important details any longer. Instead, you’ll have instant access to current information, plus reference charts and service information coming to you, not you chasing bits and pieces of vital information around the airport.

That’s not just smart, but plane smart. Why would you travel any other way?

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10 Responses to “Plane Smart: How to Invade Your Airport.”

  1. Thanks for the tips, Captain. It might be “war” now but I still have fun with it all (even dragging two small kids around).

    Btw–still laughing over that cartoon… :)

    • I’m ever grateful for on-demand quick-don oxygen masks in the cockpit.

      And I’m certain that you and Mike travel smart; you’ve got the security, customs and everything in between down to a science, which really is plane smart.

  2. Oh, this is perfect. (tears from eyes, but not sure if from the hilarious writing or disturbing truths)
    And to think once everyone actually dressed up to go to the airport for traveling – or for just collecting someone at the end of the trip. And all were so courteous and polite.
    Or was that just a movie myth…that was real, right? I think it was….but memories fade and get confused.
    Great post

    • Yes, the good old days, when flying was more genteel. I fault Alfred Kahn, the architect of Deregulation, who sold congress on the misguided notion that competition in pricing would lead to lower fares and better opportunities for travelers. That didn’t exactly work out.

  3. Hi captain,

    Great tips! Never really thought of some things that way! I finished Mr. Mullane’s book which I bought because of your podcast, wanted to let you know that it is one of the best books I’ve ever read! Thanks for recommending :)

    Kind regards,

    Bas (P.S. I saw a AA 737 at Punta Cana when I was on vacation two weeks ago. Never saw an AA aircraft as I live in The Netherlands but this was gorgeous! The ‘ bare metal ‘ looked very good, I hope the tradition is kept up and something will remain now that the 787 is on its way!)

    • Yes the polished aluminum will continue–it’s cheaper to maintain than paint, plus paint adds a significant amount of weight which impacts fuel burn over the life of the jet.

      Mike Mullane is one helluva guy–he does everything full-throttle and even post-space program, he’s busier than ever traveling, lecturing and adventuring in the southwest. Very cool guy.

  4. Hey Chris: Thanks – I never would have thought of strategizing airport entry in the way you suggest. Great suggestion! I always just build in extra time as a buffer, but someday when I can’t, this will help me feel more comfortable with my ability to make my flight. And I always love your cartoons – you are quite talented.

    I really enjoyed your recent column about the Air France 447. I’ve followed the crash closely over the years and I was surprised when the “verdict” was pilot error even when they knew that the pitot tubes failed. So, I was happy to get your thoughts.

    What I got out of what you wrote was, yes, in a way, it was PARTLY pilot error – but probably something that should have been better trained for, but overall, it was a choice on the part of the regulatory agency and the airline not to replace all the tubes earlier that primarily caused the accident. I guess I’d forefront pilot error in cases where mechanical failures were MUCH more minor than AF447, but I’m not in the biz…

    Happy flying, Kathy

  5. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    Hey Captain! Great post on airport reconnaissance! When I lived in Italy, I always scouted out the airports I’d be connecting in so that I could find the nearest purveyors of a great American craft beer and a simple, grilled New York stripe! But I guess I could have gotten through the place faster, too! LOL! Flew into MCO this morning and pulled up the terminal map because someone had permanently borrowed my Oakleys and I needed a new pair!

    Flying from PVD to ATL (and on to PBI) recently, we had a rare aborted take-off because part of the cowling came flying off (an MD-88) during the take-off roll. BTW, it’s amazing how many people wanna go to confession when stuff like that happens! Hahahaha! Many moons ago, you’d written a post that included some of this data and, before we reached the gate again, I was already re-booked for the same flight the next day! I used my free time in the terminal to go get those poor gals at the gate some Starbucks! People’s nastiness never ceases to amaze me, really! Life’s way too short! Just roll with it and enjoy!

    Ohh…I keep meaning to tell you that you did a great job co-hosting on the Airplane Geeks podcast a couple of weeks ago! You have a knack for asking the most interesting and incisive questions! Love that podcast and you’d be a great addition! Yours are great, too! Loved hearing from Bill again!

    • I always enjoy joining the Plane Geeks. They’re a great bunch of aviation enthusiasts, plus their contributors from Down Under and across the pond are always enjoyable.

      Max has helped me out extensively with technical advice to get my podcast feed and sound production ready for iTunes and Internet release–no simple task.

      My favorite episode of Plane Geeks that I was fortunate to participate in (#204?) was with guest Igor Sikorsky III. It was absolutely fascinating to hear his firsthand family recollections, plus getting to ask him alot of questions about float plane flying.

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