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​Getting Comfortable in Coach

Posted by Mark Gallo on

The title of this month’s column is really oxymoronic. Better to call it “trying to be less miserable in economy class”.

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 - we don’t really notice it after a while 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 are options. There’s a big leap in comfort and price to fly business class. But my suggestions pertain to the working class schmucks like me that fly in economy class much of the time.

The Situation

On a typical narrow-bodied Boeing 737-800 that might mean you’re surrounded by 100 or so poor souls, with 48 more 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. 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 in an uncomfortable chair jousting with your fellow row mates for the arm rest and facing the balding head of the guy in front of you as little as 28 inches away - if he decides to recline his seat - these things will put a frown on your face. (Do any of those disembarking passengers look cheery as they march past you at the gate?) And let’s not forget the unseen enemy - a full fuselage is a germ factory, a flying test tube of microbes that threaten your health.

Location. Location. Location.

Okay so what to do to mitigate the suffering?

Before I book the 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 – that’s 15% to 20% more personal space. Consult a good seating chart like to identify where not to sit if at all possible.

Avoid seats with limited or no recline adjacent to exit rows and toilets, seats with foot space impaired by entertainment units, and no power source. You can also check on whether your flight has wifi availability and in-flight entertainment.

Turn down the volume

Aside from bringing your own snacks and reading/writing/puzzle/crafts materials, what else can you do to improve your well being?

If I could bring only one other thing it would be a decent pair of noise-canceling headphones. 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. Once you’ve tried headphones on a long flight you’ll realize just how stressful all that ambient noise is. Great headphones don’t come cheap, but you don’t need to spend $400 on a set of Bose Quiet Comfort. Good noise-canceling headphones with decent audio quality can be had for as little as $100. They are also a much better alternative for in-flight entertainment than the cheap expendable earphones the attendants offer for a couple bucks. Earbuds are much smaller to pack and usually don’t cost as much, but they don’t come close to blocking the effects of ambient noise. The cheapest protection of all are ear plugs - they block up to 33 decibels of noise.

A few winks

If you want to sleep on the flight, a good sleep mask helps you relax. Make sure it blocks out light from all angles and 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 those that support your head side-to-side and front-to-back with a high soft collar. To that end, there are several inflatable, memory foam, and structural neck supports on the market.

Gam care

Another staple of long distance flights has been 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 seated for long periods, especially at lower atmospheric pressure like in an airplane cabin (even in the pressurized cabin of commercial passenger aircraft you’re at the equivalent atmosphere of 8500 feet above sea level). Many sock makers claim graduated compression also reduces the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) - the condition where dangerous blood clots may form due to poor circulation. I cannot vouch for that claim but I can say unequivocally they do keep my feet from swelling.

Maintaining health

I bring 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 not knowing how many hundreds of hands have touched this space. If you’re really vulnerable to airborne germs than you can go so far as to use a face mask . Depending on the type of face mask, they can block some airborne viruses and bacteria. If you’re sick they have the reverse effect of partially containing your harmful microbes - much to the relief of your fellow passengers.

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

No Jet Lag is a brand of homeopathic tablet that claims when consumed about every 2 hours in flight will reduce the effects of jet lag. The active ingredients include leopard’s bane, daisy, wild chamomile, ipecac, and club moss. The product is manufactured in New Zealand and has been used by thousands of flyers since 1990. My wife and I use them on any flight longer than 3 time zones.

One brand of nasal moisturizing spray called Flight Spray consists of only three ingredients - turmeric root, spearmint, and distilled water. I’ve found it does a good job of keeping my nasal passages moist with a couple of squirts every now and then. This is another easy way to reduce the odds of getting sick from airborne bacteria. In addition, given the extremely dry environment in commercial jet cabins, you should make a point of drinking water frequently during long flights.

Completing the list…

Also, don’t forget to bring 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.

And finally bring plenty of patience and a good sense of humor.

Got more suggestions? Send them to me at [email protected] 

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