Trapped on a Plane

A seasoned traveler, an expert and a journalist offer advice on keeping yourself and your family calm in the face of unexpected travel delays.

I love the idea of traveling, and the experience of being in a new place. What I don’t like is the process of travel.

I know for some, half the adventure is getting there.

Me, not so much. I’m a nervous flyer and an impatient road-tripper. When my daughter whines, “Are we there yet?” from the back seat, my first instinct is to whine along with her.

So you can imagine how well I dealt with being trapped in an airplane on the tarmac for four hours, with our then 2-year-old and my husband seated four rows away.

The Frustration of a Delay

Before we even boarded the plane, we were subject to rude airline staffers who insisted we wait until the last minute for seat assignments, and seated the three of us in different rows.

Then the flight was delayed two hours.

I was so relieved when we boarded and taxied to the runway. I was out of toys and treats, and looked forward to plopping my kid in front of the DVD player.

Just then, the pilot informed us that were delayed for at least an hour. On the runway.

One hour turned into four, and we were cleared for take-off six hours after our original departure time.

I’ll spare you the details of the incredibly uncaring crew that ministered mostly to first-class passengers. I’ll spare you the long story about the flight attendant who told my husband that she couldn’t get some juice for our quickly dehydrating daughter, because she was on the phone with her boyfriend.

Quality of Service Connected to Financial Constraints

It’s no secret—and no surprise—that airlines are in trouble, plagued by extreme delays and rapidly gaining a reputation that rivals Satan’s.

Anthony Pagano, an associate professor of management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says financial constraints negatively affect the quality of service. He disagrees with the bare bones approach.

“I think passengers would be better served if (airlines) raised their fares to cover their costs and offer good service, instead of the Mickey Mouse approaches they have taken,” Pagano says. “I think passengers would respond to good service and be willing to pay for quality.”

Can I get an amen? I’d rather pay an extra $100 per ticket than be told that there is no food on board for my kid, when she’s starving because of an ungodly delay.

But I learned my lesson. Delays happen.

Prepare to Weather a Delay Comfortably

Author James C. Samans travels more than 200,000 miles a year, and if that doesn’t qualify him as an expert (or crazy) I don’t know what does.

Samans, author of Spontaneous Tourism: The Busy Person’s Guide To Travel, says that you should expect delays.

He says passengers should bring an empty water bottle with them through security, and fill it up at a water fountain before boarding the plane. He also suggests bringing a snack with you, or forking over the cash to pay for the boxed snack that some airlines offer.

Samans adds that your attitude contributes to the level of service you receive. The crew is human, too. Imagine if your job required you to manage 180 angry people while hurtling through the air in a metal tube.

Or being trapped with those people on the ground in said metal tube.

Be Polite

“Whenever there’s a significant delay or flight problem, remember that the crew is frustrated, angry, and maybe even scared about what could happen,” Samans says. “Crew members tend to react defensively when they feel attacked.”

Turns out that old saying about flies and honey holds true.

“The more reasonable that you are in remembering that it isn’t their fault, the more that they’ll remember it's not your fault either and try to help you,” Samans advises. “When you smile, you can’t help but sound more friendly.”

Samans does admit that some crews are better at dealing with long, in-plane delays than others. His advice?

“Only ask for something when you need it. Be polite, and even if the response angers you, respond positively and with understanding,” he says. “And if you are treated badly, avoid a confrontation unless it is a matter of safety, but take notes of what happened and the name of the person responsible to file a complaint with the airline. That won’t make up for the incident, but it will probably get you some sort of compensation.”

According to Pagano, I should start practicing my Zen breathing techniques if I plan to travel by air in the future. As the belt tightens to the point of strangulation, passengers can expect to continue paying more for less.

“As the industry continues to cut back in order to reduce costs, you should expect more of the same,” he says. “Full planes, overbooking, poor service. These all should be expected.”

Gosh, I can’t wait for that next flight. If you’re looking for me, you’ll find me in my laboratory, working on a teleportation machine. 

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Been there. Done that. And it sucks. We try to avoid connecting flights simply because it reduces the possiblities for delays or getting stuck on the ground. Over pack snacks, games, movies....exactly for this scenario. And when the kids are getting antsy and you've walked the aisles 14 times, don't be afraid to ask to see the cockpit -- especially if the door is open. Even in this post 9/11 world, most pilots will let young kids check out the flight deck while at the gate.

:O) Thankfully we weren't delayed on that tarmac for that long, but the 45 min with the then 2 year old was enough. Thanks for the tips if we fly again I will be sure to use them.