Optimizing Airline travel

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When I worked with Toyota, my personal belief that things can always be improved, was strengthened through the philosophy of kaizen. So, as I do with every bit of my life, I always tried to optimize my airline travel until yesterday when I arrived at my final destination in an A380 only to realise that some things just cannot be gamed. So, as I write I’m hoping to discover more such obstacles that are touch cracks.

Following an air traveller is like following a car on the assembly line. To keep things simple, I will structure this operation (air travel) into 13 processes so I can help make sense of which processes can be optimised and which ones can never be gamed. I’ve chosen the case of cross border travel simply because my international flight travels significantly outnumber domestic travels.

1. Booking an airline ticket – Fairly optimised. From having to go to the ticket counter of an airline to booking tickets through physical agents to buying tickets on airline websites to comparing airline prices through online agents such as cleartrip.com to comparing discounts of various online agents through websites like skyscanner.com, this process has surely seen several iterations of optimisation. In fact, various airlines have also responded through better deals through their own websites to reduce commissions being paid to these online travel agents. So, what’s next? postpaid airline travel?

2. Travel to the airport on the day of travel – This is directly a function of the evolution of public transportation in a city. So, the scope for improvement is region specific. Not considering the bus/ train/ metro connectivity to the airport, I will only point out the developments in the private mode of transportation. I will even ignore the case of cities where you can catch a taxi on the fly to go practically anywhere (New York, Singapore, Barcelona, etc). One needed to prebook a few days in advance either personally through an agent which later changed to the advent of exclusive airport taxi services such as Meru, Easy cabs (I’m taking the example of India simply because I’m familiar with it). Then, this market has recently been destroyed successfully through ola, uber, etc which allow you to get taxis practically on the fly at a much lower cost. We can see further optimisation in this process as these guys fight it off.

3. Entering Airports – Unlike in Europe, in India, you’ve security guards at the entrance of the airport demanding that they see paper copies of your tickets. Only in a few cosmopolitan cities off late, airports are getting more comfortable with mobile tickets and boarding passes.

4. Checking in – Online check in is the greatest thing that could’ve happened to airline travellers. This saves 50% of your waiting time in the airport. This also provides you additional benefits of skipping the trip to the check in counter, unnecessarily printing boarding passes, etc if you don’t have to drop off baggage. You also have self check in counters which are kind of useless in case you’ve to drop off bags since you anyway have to stand in queues which are not necessarily shorter. For instance, I went into the online checked in queue at the Bangalore airport and unfortunately I had two families of four each ahead of me with tonnes of check in baggage. You can imagine the rest. Just in case you’re travelling with special documents (apart from the passport) which the airline staff is not familiar with, you’re screwed. There is no way to optimise this except pray, keep your fingers crossed, hope that you’ve a person of the opposite sex at the counter, etc.

5. Security – If this were to ever be optimised, the country’s unemployment rate would shoot up. So, just to make your experience more pleasant, just follow instructions on the board while you wait in the queue to security check, take off everything except bare essentials while you still wait in line, just so you can dump off everything into a tray real quickly and get out through the scanner in one piece. Of course, in airports with multiple security check lines, go through lines with either business travellers or hippies (frequent travellers) since they know the drill and will have standard procedures for quickly getting out of these lines.

6. Immigration (at the boarding port) – Here are a few strategies that you could use to get in and out quickly – Pick a line with more locals since they spend the least amount of time at the counters and the queue is sure to move quickly. If you know the local language, use that to communicate with the immigration officers, else stick to English and be nice. Fill the immigration form even before you join the queue or while in the queue so you don’t fall behind joining the queue. If you’re stuck in another queue, try and avoid lines with chinese or non-native english speakers who’ll stall the queue for hours.

7. Boarding – If you’re not handicapped, travelling with children or with people in a wheel chair, this step has a few pre-processes like being a frequent flyer or being familiar with boarding patterns of different airlines. If you’re flying emirates for instance, just pick a seat towards the end of the aircraft so they’ll let you board first. If you’re travelling on easy jet or some other low cost airline, they don’t really spend enough effort in optimising boarding time because they know people are not optimising for time when they choose their airline and that they can afford delays, etc. Also, if you’re not familiar with boarding patterns, just pretend to be sick and if you’re lucky, the airline staff might just be kind enough to let you board first. Worked for me on monday.

8. Flying – Most important part of the flying experience is your seating – if you haven’t managed to pick a seat as suggested above, then make sure it’s not too close to the toilet as it could either be smelly or crowded around you always. Assuming you don’t already know this, DO NOT pick the seats in the last row since they don’t recline while the seat in front of you can. If you’re a first time traveller, you shall be excused for sitting by the window else pick the Aisle no matter what. If you’re in a 3-4-3 configuration, I would suggest you pick the aisle on either side of the middle row since you won’t have to bother anyone if you want to go pee and you’ll have only one person bothering you at any given point of time unless you’ve first time travellers/ family sitting next to you like I did on my way here this week. Next, pre-book your meals so you’ll be given food first. You can eat quickly and get more sleep than most others. Of course, using this strategy depends on time of your flight and what you’re optimising for – sleep or hunger. If you’re travelling from one of the many hubs like Dubai, Thailand, etc that are duty free heavens, just avoid carrying bulky cabin baggage as finding space in the cabin and later retrieving your bag can be a menace. Just put your tiny bag under the seat in front of you. Despite all this optimisation, if you’re stuck with a bunch of crying babies around you, god bless you. Warning: If you thought premium economy will help you escape this wrath, let me warn you that I just heard from my cousin that 19 babies in premium economy of a flight to the US all howled at once through take off and landing.

9. Disembarking – The strategies differ based on if you’re at your final destination or have a connecting flight to take and how much transit time you have. If you’ve a long transit time, follow the boarding strategy I have mentioned above. If you’re either at your final destination or have a short transit, then pick a seat in front while checking in so you can get out of the aircraft at the earliest.

10. Immigration (at the destination port) – Follow the same strategy as the one at the boarding port as it’s fairly optimised. Other suggestions are most welcome.

11. Baggage claim – This has been the hardest to crack. First of all, avoid check in baggage if possible. Most business travellers usually do this for short travels (<week). If you don’t have a choice and you’re taking a direct flight to your destination, at the time of check in at the boarding port, get the check in staff to put a fragile sticker on your baggage (not a heavy sticker, mind you. Some airports don’t have fragile stickers, instead they’ve a heavy sticker which only makes matters worse). If you’re taking two flights or more, pray that you’re second/ final flight is not an A380 because there is no way you can game the baggage claim process. The only thing you can do at the luggage conveyor is to pray and hope that you get lucky. All the optimisation through the previous processes will seem futile if you don’t get your bags quickly enough. This flight is so humungous that I don’t think they even think while loading bags into the flight as they probably want to get the task done as quickly as possible. If anyone has cracked it, please do enlighten me.

12. Local currency procurement – Currency exchange in an airport is a self regulated market i.e all banks in an airport offer the same exchange rate, so stop wasting time trying to compare deals. Of course sometimes, you’ll get tricked in paying commissions, etc which you’ll know only once the transaction is complete. Also, the monetary cost involved is insignificant compared to time you’ll spend analysing. So, assuming you’re travelling to a non-dollar/euro/pound accepting country, just carry USD (everyone likes American currency) so you can expedite the transaction at the Forex counter.

13. Taxi back home/ hotel/ wherever – Fairly regulated at most airports. Again, this market is being destroyed by uber in some cities and for good reason. Choices for mode of travel here is simply a function of what you’re optimising for – time or money.

There is a 14th process somewhere in the middle – transit. This may or may not occur depending on if it’s a direct flight or not. There is no way to optimise for this after you’ve booked your flight. You can only apply the principles of relativity to either make the transit time seem shorter or not depending on whether you’ve a billion relatives to buy chocolates for or friends who always reserve your duty free alcohol limit or you’re in an airport for the first time and you’ve a tendency to get lost. So, no operations gyan here.

Also, I will use this forum to make a request to all leisure air travellers while at this – Please walk on one side of the airport (right or left whatever is the norm in the country) be it on the escalator or otherwise because business travellers are optimising for time unlike you and hence, some respect please. Only first time travellers are excused here since I’m a kind person.

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