Getting comfortable in coach

By: Mark Gallo
This item appears on page 50 of the May 2018 issue.

The title of this month’s column is oxymoronic. It would be more appropriate to call it “Trying to be less miserable in coach” (that is, in an airline’s economy-class seat).

If you’re like me, you’ve become inured to the increasingly class-based system of paying for passenger preferences. It’s like background noise: after a while, we don’t really notice it until something new jumps out or we jump back in after a long absence. We go after the cheapest fares and decide what additional services we’re willing to get nickel-and-dimed for. 

Of course, there is the option of flying business class or first class, but these upgrades are pricey in terms of points and/or cash. I never have enough of either to consider these options, so my suggestions are for the working-class stiffs like me who fly “economy.”

The situation

On a typical narrow-body Boeing 737-800, you may be surrounded by a hundred or so poor souls in similar circumstances, with 48 up forward in “economy plus” and 16 more in the first-class cabin. Assuming 90% seat occupancy, that makes 148 passengers plus crew crammed into a 140-foot fuselage. 

If you’re on a short flight, say, 90 minutes or less, you can tolerate just about any kind of discomfort. But as the hours add up, the misery index weighs you down. 

All your senses are impacted. The cumulative effects of low cabin pressure, super-dry cabin air, the dull roar of jet engines and being strapped into an uncomfortable chair jostling with your fellow row mates for the armrests and facing the balding head of the guy in front of you as little as 23 inches away, should he decide to recline his seat, make for high-altitude distress. (How many of those disembarking passengers look cheery as they shuffle past you at the gate?) 

And let’s not forget what we cannot see. A full fuselage is a germ factory, a flying test tube of microbes that threaten you with the latest rhinoviruses or worse, the effects of which will not be felt till the misery of the flight is forgotten.

Location. Location. Location.

Okay, so what to do to mitigate the suffering? 

Before I book a flight, I play the airline’s game and look at the cost of upgrading to economy plus. The longer the flight, the more likely I’ll consider the upgrade because I might gain 4 to 6 inches of legroom. Sounds like a little, but that’s 15% to 20% more personal space. 

Whether or not you fly economy or economy plus, you should consult a good seating chart like those found at www.seatguru.com. This will help you identify where not to sit, as it identifies drawbacks to particular seat locations. 

Avoid seats with limited or no recline; these are adjacent to exit rows and toilets. Also, look to avoid seats with entertainment systems that impede foot space and, if you have personal electronics, any seat with no power source. 

At www.seatguru.com, you can check on whether your flight has Wi-Fi and in-flight entertainment, as well.

Turn down the volume

Aside from taking your own snacks and reading/writing/puzzles/crafts, what else can you do to improve your well-being? 

If I could take only one other thing, it would be a decent pair of noise-canceling headphones. Even if you don’t listen to music or podcasts, they are a worthy investment, as they significantly reduce ambient noise. 

It’s surprising how noisy an aircraft is in flight — as much as 80 decibels while at cruising altitude. To put that in perspective, a normal conversation might be at 60 decibels, and a lawn mower might make 90 decibels of noise. The dull roar of ambient noise in flight is really apparent as soon as you remove your headphones. 

Great headphones don’t come cheap, but good ones can be had for a lot less than the $400 price tag of Bose QuietComfort®. Effective noise-canceling headphones with decent audio quality can be had for as little as $100. 

Look for features like 40mm drivers for sound quality, comfortable ear cups (those that fit over the ear offer better passive-noise reduction) and compact, foldable designs. There are a lot of online product reviews and user comments on popular models. Note that the noise-canceling feature requires separate batteries to operate.

Headphones are also a much better alternative for in-flight entertainment than the cheap, expendable earphones the attendants offer for a couple bucks. Note: If you’ll be plugging into the plane’s entertainment system, make sure your headphones have an airline-jack adapter. 

A lot of people travel with earbuds, but earbuds don’t come close to blocking the effects of ambient noise. If you want down-and-dirty protection, there are always earplugs, which can block up to 33 decibels of noise. 

A few winks

If you plan to sleep on a flight, a good sleep mask helps you relax. Make sure it blocks out light from all angles and that it has eye cups so you can blink behind the mask. 

While on the subject of sleep, there are many neck pillows on the market. The traditional horseshoe-shaped pillow is ubiquitous, but I find it doesn’t provide enough support to keep my head from bobbing forward as I nod off. 

I prefer the type with a high, soft collar that supports your head side to side and front to back. To that end, there are several inflatable, memory-foam and structural-neck supports on the market.

Gam care

Another staple of long-distance flights is graduated compression socks. For years, these socks have been touted as more healthful and comfortable. 

The idea is that these specialized socks — with less pressure at the top and more at the ankle — improve circulation in your legs and reduce swelling in your feet when you’re seated for long periods, especially in environments of lower atmospheric pressure, like in an airplane cabin. (Even in the pressurized cabin of a commercial passenger aircraft, you’re in an atmosphere equivalent to 8,500 feet above sea level.) 

Many sock makers claim graduated compression also reduces the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition in which dangerous blood clots may form due to poor circulation. While I can’t personally vouch for that claim, I can say unequivocally they do keep my feet from swelling. 

Maintaining health

I don’t consider myself a germaphobe, but I do take antiseptic wipes with me on board, if for no other reason than to wipe down the tray and armrests before eating. It’s just good common sense, since there’s no telling how many hands have touched that space and how many times it’s been coughed on since the last time a maintenance crew disinfected the surface. 

If you’re really vulnerable to airborne germs, you can even go so far as to use a face mask. Depending on the type of face mask, it may block some airborne viruses and bacteria. And if you’re sick, it has the reverse effect of somewhat containing your harmful microbes… much to the benefit of your fellow passengers. 

A couple more health aids to consider are No-Jet-Lag® and moisturizing nasal spray. 

No-Jet-Lag is a brand of homeopathic tablet which, according to the makers, reduces the effects of jet lag. Chew one tablet every two hours during the flight, and the active ingredients (leopard’s bane, daisy, wild chamomile, ipecac and club moss) may help relieve those feelings of disorientation and restlessness.

The product is manufactured in New Zealand and has been used by thousands of flyers since 1990. My wife and I take them on any flight crossing more than three time zones.

As for moisturizing nasal spray, one brand called Flight Spray® consists of only three ingredients: turmeric root, spearmint and distilled water.

I’ve found that a couple of squirts every now and then does a good job of keeping my nasal passages moist. This is another easy way to reduce the odds of getting sick from airborne bacteria. 

In fact, given the extremely dry environment in commercial jet cabins, you should make a point of drinking water frequently during a long flight.

Completing the list…

Don’t forget to take along a small, portable power bank so you can recharge your phone, tablet or headphones, in the event you’re unable to plug in at your seat. 

Lastly, pack plenty of patience and your good sense of humor.

Got more suggestions? Feel free to share.

Mark Gallo is the owner of CircaTerra Travel Outfitters (Santa Barbara, CA; 805/568-5402, circaterratravel.com), and he can be reached at mgallo@circaterratravel.com.