Being a frequent flier in economy class on one of the growing numbers of Asia’s less prestigious short-haul carriers can be a stressful experience.
One passenger on China Eastern Airlines was so desperate to exit the aircraft while waiting at Sanya Phoenix International airport on China’s Hainan Island in 2014, he activated the emergency slide.
Jonathan Bricker of the University of Washington developed the world’s first Air Travel Stress Scale (ATSS). “The uniquely uncontrollable and impersonal qualities of the air travel environment may make it difficult for individuals to choose adaptive ways to cope with their stress reactions,” he says.
Bricker suggests stressed air travellers are more likely to use unhealthy coping strategies, such as substance use (drinking too much) or venting (air rage).
So before you head off, begin by managing your expectations when flying on the cheap. A thirsty passenger on Singapore’s Scoot Airlines reported on the airline’s Facebook page this month that his request for some drinking water resulted in him being handed a cup full of ice cubes and told to wait for them to melt.
Comments from other internet users reminded him you get what you pay for.
Do not expect much in the way of legroom or in-flight service. Brace yourself for delays, queues, noise and for standing up during interminable bus journeys over airport runways, in search of a serviceable aircraft.
Once you have prepared mentally, these anti-anxiety tips will help deal with every situation, short of flying the plane yourself.
1. Avoid checking in baggage
Never check in baggage unless it is absolutely necessary. This will save you from the often interminable and chaotic queues. At Iloilo airport on a recent trip to the Philippines, we experienced a 20-minute delay while an old man checked in his live chicken in a cardboard box, for an internal flight to Manila.
Instead, cram what you can in a large rucksack, check in online and proceed straight past the screaming children to the gate. If needed, you can always buy some clean underwear and a toothbrush at your destination.
2. Take a vow of silence
Once on board the aircraft, do not make eye contact or talk to anyone, unless it is a matter of urgent flight safety (“Please could you move? The aircraft appears to be on fire.”) Other passengers are a primary cause of air travel stress, whether they are engaged in the abuse of cabin crew, drunken racist ranting and other unruly behaviour.
There have been 58,000 incidents of unruly passenger behaviour worldwide since 2007, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Also, be wary of retired couples desperate to share with you every iota of their itinerary complete with photos, for the duration of the flight.
3. Prepare a ready use bag
This simple tote bag stays with you at all times and contains all the essential survival tools for a stress-free flight.
The essential items in the bag are eye-mask, music player and noise-cancelling headphones, hygiene wipes, bottled water, aerosol water spray, surgical mask and a book or digital reader. In the 2018 IATA Global Passenger Survey, 42 per cent of passengers complained of too little room in the overhead lockers, and this is likely to be the case on budget airlines where people are bringing all their luggage on board.
The lack of space means your carry-on luggage is very unlikely to end up anywhere near your seat – but at least your ready-use bag will be close by at all times.
4. Stay healthy
Medical experts warn that air passengers are exposed to reduced atmospheric pressure, less available oxygen, low-humidity, constant noise, vibration, and often freezing temperatures. Understandably, the fear of contracting a deadly pathogen, hypoxia, dehydration or hyperthermia, can cause anxiety. A surgical mask offers limited protection from fellow passenger’s germs. Deploy your mineral water spray liberally to maintain local humidity levels, use your headphones to block out noise, drink lots of water and leave your seat at least once per hour for some bending and stretching to keep your circulation going.
5. Aisle survive
Some experts recommend the window seat for slightly improved cabin air quality because it is nearer the air conditioning vents but aisle seats reduce claustrophobia and in-flight anxiety. If in-flight food is offered, always order a vegetarian or halal meal in advance, when you book the flight online. These meals are always served first, so recipients can finish their meal while fellow passengers are still wrestling with the plastic packaging on theirs.
By delicately rising from your seat, while holding the empty meal tray and replacing it on the tray table, you can enjoy free and easy access to a relatively clean on-board lavatory before everybody else uses it, without the additional indignity of lining up.