Travelling by airliner

I originally made these notes for some friends about to make their first journey by air, and have put them here in the hope that they'll be useful for first-time air travellers in general.


It is important to arrive at the airport in plenty of time (your airline should have told you how long to allow; if not, two hours is a good assumption), and to be sure that you have brought everything essential with you. Here is a short checklist:

You will be allowed to take one small piece of luggage into the cabin with you, and the rest must be checked in to go into the luggage hold of the aircraft. Most airlines have a luggage weight limit per passenger, and you will have to pay extra if you exceed it. If you are travelling in a group, people behind you in the queue to check in will not appreciate it if you fiddle round with transferring items from one person's luggage to anothers!

At the airport

When you arrive at the airport, go to the area marked ``Departures''. There seems to be a convention in airport design that this is to the left as you arrive.

In the departure area there will be some display screens indicating which check-in desk to go to for each flight; if no desk is yet indicated, you cannot yet check-in.

Some people seem to find this procedure too complicated for them (although I'm told by a psychologist that they are more likely to be trying to put off the moment of flight, rather than simply being dim). You can help to keep things flowing smoothly by having your passport and travel documents ready, any sharp objects already transferred from your pockets or cabin baggage to your hold luggage, and any straps on the luggage already tightened, and loose ends of them tucked in so they will not catch in conveyor belts.

Go to your check-in desk (there is usually a queue) and present your ticket or flight details and your passport. Hand over any large luggage, which will be labelled, weighed, and sent off to be x-rayed for security and then loaded into the hold of your aircraft. Show them your hand luggage, to confirm that it is within the size limits. It must not contain any objects such as scissors, knives, or syringes, that could be used to threaten other passengers or the crew -- this is an anti-hijacking precaution. The desk staff will give you your boarding pass, which you must keep with you. They will tell you a gate number, and a time you should be there by. (The gate number is like a platform number at a train station.) This information should also be written on your boarding pass.

It is essential to go to the right gate (and for that matter the right terminal, if there are several). This way, you avoid having your name called out over the public address to tell you to get a move on!


You may at this point have some time to spare, and there are usually a café and some shops this side of security. Leaving plenty of time (perhaps half an hour at least, if it is your first time), head for the area generally referred to as ``Security''. (This will typically be labelled with the gate numbers that it leads to, or be labelled something like ``Flights''.) Once you are through this, you have to make your journey; you are not allowed back. You will have to present your boarding pass, and then go through a security check.
Occasionally it bleeps anyway. I think the staff may have another way of triggering it (perhaps just palming a piece of metal near it) so they can search other passengers without having to say why! But this is quite rare.
You have to place your hand luggage, any bulky coats or jackets, pocket contents including wallet and mobile phone, and at some airports, your shoes, on trays to go through an x-ray machine, and while they are being x-rayed, you walk through a metal-detecting arch. At this point, at you may be searched individually, particularly if the metal detector bleeps. To get through quickly, I usually take my belt off if it has a heavy buckle and I am wearing trousers that are not likely to fall down without it! Spectacle frames, and zips, seem to be small enough not to set the detector off.

Collect all your belongings from the scanner tray, and you are now in the area referred to as ``airside''. This is where the duty-free shopping is, and there is usually at least another café here. There will be signs indicating which way to go for each gate number, and, if some of the gates are at a distance, an indication of how long it will take to get your gate. Sometimes there is a transport system to get you there, and sometimes you simply walk to the gate which may be up to about ten minutes' walk.

Boarding the aircraft

At the gate, wait for it to be announced that your plane is ready for boarding. At some airports, passengers are called forward in two groups, according to numbers written on their boarding passes, or according to some other priority system. Passengers with special needs (disabilites, or travelling with young children) are generally called for first. There may be yet another café in the waiting area at the gate. (Most airports and their attendant service companies are keen to sell you things!)

When called forward, show your boarding pass and your passport. The staff will take part of your boarding pass and hand the other part to you; you should keep it carefully until your journey is complete. You may like to confirm with them where this flight is going! This is your last chance; once past here, you are committed to going wherever that aircraft is going.

It is no longer thought likely that mobile phones interfere with the aircraft electronics, but a mobile phone high above the phone masts (and thus hard for the system to tell which mast it is nearest to), travelling far faster from one mast to the next than the system is designed to cope with, can confuse the phone system.

Now you walk either across the concrete apron to your aircraft, and up steps into the aircraft, or through an airbridge -- a motorized bridge which goes out to meet the aircraft. Either way, when you get into the aircraft, you show your boarding pass to the cabin crew.

You should stow your hand luggage in the overhead locker provided; sometimes you are allowed to put it under your seat. The crew will start the engines, and make various announcements. At this point, you must switch your mobile phones, pagers etc, off, and fasten your seat belt. The cabin staff will explain point out the emergency exits and other safety features.

Sometimes there is a slight smell of fuel. This is apparently normal.

The flight itself

The aircraft will now be pushed backwards by a pushback tractor (the solid-looking truck that lurks just in front of the aircraft while the aircraft is being loaded -- airliners do not normally reverse under their own power) for a short distance. Then it taxis to the start of the runway, and will usually pause briefly for a few checks (although if in a hurry they may do these while taxiing). There may be a further delay at this point, as for some routes, aircraft are not allowed to take off until a landing time slot has been allocated to them at their destination -- this is to avoid having to circle around waiting to land.

When it is ready, it will move onto the runway itself, accelerate hard along the runway, and take off. It will climb steeply at first, and may turn a few times to get into the right piece of airspace for the direction it is going. There will be strange noises as it retracts the undercarriage (wheels), adjusts wing flaps, and so on.

If you can see the wings from where you are sitting, you may notice them flexing slightly during the flight. This is normal.

Once the plane has reached cruising height, you can unfasten your seatbelt, and will be allowed to walk along the aircraft to the toilets if necessary. The cabin crew will bring along a trolley with snacks and drinks (in case the two or three cafés in the airport were not enough!) in the case of a budget airline, or a meal (price included in your ticket fare) for other airlines; and then typically one with a variety of merchandise.

The crew will announce when the aircraft is about to start descending, and at this point you must return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt. If you can see the wings from where you are sitting, you may see part of the wing extend backward, leaving a slot between it and the main part of the wing -- this adjusts the airflow to allow it to fly more slowly as it approaches the airport. (They may also do this during take-off.)

The aircraft will descend, probably turning a few times, and will then land, usually with slight jolting. It will then decelerate further (usually with a loud engine noise as it uses thrust reversers) and taxi to the airport buildings, park, and switch the engines off. At this point, you may unfasten your seat belt (and perhaps switch your mobile phone on, although you may be told not to do this until you reach the terminal building).


Collect your hand luggage from the overhead locker or from under your seat, and leave the aircraft (either via steps, or via an airbridge), and go into the arrival section of the airport. Here you will usually be asked to show your passport and your boarding pass.

Collect your checked in luggage, if any, from a ``carousel'' (a kind of conveyor belt, in a loop, with lots of people standing round it). There will be a monitor screen indicating which carousel your flight's luggage will arrive on. There is often a bit of a delay at this stage.

Check that you have all your luggage with you, and leave the airside area through one of two or three Customs channels:

This is a point of no return: you are not allowed back into the air side area once you have gone through the channel (and so it is important to check that you have all your luggage -- and for that matter, none of anyone else's).

You have now completed your journey by air. There are usually buses, taxis, and sometimes trains available from the airport, if you are not being met.

John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Tue Aug 21 17:59:50 IST 2007