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The Non-Expert

Fear of Flying

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we help an airline passenger determine the best day and time to book a flight.

Credit: Theo van Stratum

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.

 

Question: Is there a best day and time to book an airline flight, and if so, which day and time is best? —Emily

Answer: At 500 miles an hour, they say, air is an aspic. The airplane is a big dumb dead x-eyed fish. This makes air travel something that Mr. Murdstone’s bitch sister would serve poor young David Copperfield atop chilly Sheffield-plate dishware. This idea of thick air implies a state change. But any child could tell you that the air is the same everywhere. The only thing that changes is our—our fish’s—velocity in the air.

What does this mean?

I. The Most Important Information

The exact best time to book a seat on an airplane is 24 hours and 35 minutes before your intended flight departs.

II. And Also

The obvious bit of information I wish to transmit here is that there are a million incorrect times to book a flight. Any phobic—realistic!—flier can explain that it’s only sheer luck and one’s own unwavering attention that prevents one from booking onto a doomed flight. Otherwise then you will have to live on a stupid time-unstuck island full of warring tribes and smoky monsters. (Manhattan.)

Your question conveys that you at last have a suspicion that something is terribly wrong with flying. My own phobia of flying is so extremely advanced and well-articulated that the only time I get any relief is when I’m actually on an airplane.

To return to the question of the aspic: Is the air firm? Is the air soft? Can you fly in it?

1.

Flight attendants everywhere say “yes!”

The best flight attendant I’ve ever met worked for American Airlines. She told me not to worry about anything, up to and including terrorists. If there were any terrorists on board, she said, she would personally “split their heads” with her “ice hammer.”

Her specificity about her choice of instrument really sealed the deal.

So while you need not worry about flight attendants, as they are your friends, you have some preliminary worrying-work to do before flying.

First: Have you read the Aviation Safety Reporting System summaries, compiled handily by NASA?

2.

For instance!

A B767-200 INGESTED A BIRD ON APPROACH. THE FLT CREW REJECTED THE NEXT TAKEOFF ATTEMPT WHEN THE SMELL OF COOKING BIRD FILLED THE COCKPIT.

There are thousands of these reports. But what is of more concern: the burning dinner odors from the engines or the behavior of the passengers? Try this one:

PAX CAME FORWARD FROM SEAT TO USE LAVATORY. LAVATORY WAS OCCUPIED. PAX WAITED 1-2 MINS BEFORE URINATING ON FIRST CLASS MEAL CART AND FORWARD ENTRY AREA. WHEN LAVATORY OPENED, HE WENT IN. UPON EXIT, I EXPLAINED SEVERITY OF THE OCCURRENCE AND ASKED FOR IDENT TO FILL OUT RPTS. I NOTIFIED THE CAPT AND PAX WAS DETAINED ON ARR.

3.

Clearly, passengers are the real problem with flying—except when the airports are. The most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in a plane is that once I was landing at a strip in Maine in a little plane and the idiot kid who came in to open up the airport late at night turned off all the runway lights as we were coming in.

Well, that was a neat go-round, and it might soothe you, Emily, to learn that the Citation airplane is capable of incredible feats of swooping and banking at low altitude.

Besides the air itself, and people, and machinery and geography, pretty much everything else about flying is fine.

4.

Knowing all that, let us return to my day-prior commercial flight-booking system. This scheme is perfect for both our recession and for magically preventing bad plane incidents. There is, now, always a plane to get on—unless you are an idiot flying the day before Christmas, in which case, stop undermining yourself.

But you do not do this 23 hours and 35 minutes before flying! For one thing, often prices jump up at 24 hours before the flight. (The 35 minutes is for unguided meditation. And if you book mega-ghetto-economy class, you often can’t cancel within the 24 hours before flying.)

N.B. Buying “day-of” + “one-way” can = you in the T.S.A. search line. Believe me.

This 35 minutes also gives you time to check the F.A.A.’s air-traffic command system for airport delays. And the airport and air incident data report. Also you should know if there are going to be any pesky satellite launches. And finally, if there are any shutdowns locally—pay close attention to the VIP list, so you know where Clinton, Obama, and all the Bushes and other active volcanoes are at any given moment.

5A.

You see how exhausting fear can be?

The less-specific and less-pedantic and best possible answer to your question is: also right now! Emily! This morning Orbitz sent out an email touting American’s $81 roundtrip flights. Recently there were so many seats left on an airplane that I decided one evening that I wanted to take a flight from New York to San Francisco the next day—well, they just canceled the flight while I was reloading the seating chart page. That was creepy in another Lost-y way. A potential plane half-full of passengers disappeared before my eyes.

So I booked the next later plane—for $120.

Last week, two people, booking 36 hours in advance, booked tickets roundtrip to Hawaii from New York, stopping each way at LAX with enough time for lunch and two cigarettes, for around $900 total—with upgrade-eligible status even. This is unfathomable.

5B.

Also, for less congestion, try to fly Tuesday through Thursday with takeoff times between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m.

6.

How can evil choose your plane if it doesn’t know which plane you’ll be on? Everyone knows that the plans that are most often ruined by fiery death are the ones laid well in advance. (However, it is not true, as a friend says, that you only die on your way to vacation; you can totally die on your way home too, obviously, God.)

There’s another reason right now is an optimal time to fly, particularly if you’re going to or coming from the East Coast. Until October 2009, air traffic has been limited, by F.A.A. order, at J.F.K. during peak hours. Ideally, New York City-area delays should be significantly down this summer, from their former rate of “fucking hideous.”

7.

What’s more, they are dealing with the vast mess that is Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey. Look at this handy F.A.A. map!

From the “NY/NJ/PHL Airspace Implementation Program Office Newsletter” (pdf)

Yes. The Tron-like super-laser mess that is the Tri-State area is going to become an orderly red and blue flow, with green dots.

8.

While my mind was first thinking about your question, in the wee hours of March 7, 2009, I had a dream. Like Agent Cooper before me, it seems that I should relay it. In my dream, Capt. Sully, he of the famous Hudson River water landing, came out of the cockpit of a Continental Boeing 737-900ER and charmingly asked the passengers if he could please have four double-A batteries. Oh, I had batteries! (And it’s true in the waking world: When flying, I have an entire little bag just filled with different kinds of batteries. Why not? The pilot clearly might require them!) But the batteries did not do the trick and so Capt. Sully and I left the plane together by means unrecorded by my mind to go forth and notify the Bloomberg administration that eventually there would be some incident slightly more dramatic than a water landing. Then in my dream I went back to my loft (it was nice! I don’t really have one!) and my boyfriend was going to throw away the claw-footed bathtub (don’t have one of those either) and I was like, “Don’t you know you could get at least $500 for that on Craigslist, why are you throwing it out?” And he was all, “Like I care!” All that night, in my dream, through the mist, much like the Batman signal, I could hear and sometimes see our poor airplane circling and zooming over New York, waiting to be saved. “It sure stays up there for a long time,” Capt. Sully called me to say.

I woke up certain I would never fly again.

So Emily, if you were an appropriately phobic flier, instead of thinking about booking times and dates, you would be thinking instead of:

  1. Carrying batteries with you at all times, and;
  2. Makes and models and local runways. For instance, you would be avoid flying into Burbank and its short runways on a 727, ensuring you were instead arriving on a 737, which, depending on weight carried, lands at a slower speed and therefore has a lessened chance of skidding off the runway.

9.

Also you might ask yourself why you would ever want to fly to Burbank anyway.

Also don’t let anyone else book your ticket because their mind won’t protect you.

Also only fly in the day. No one can see you if your plane crashes at night.

Also try not to think about how JetBlue pays first-year captains just $80-something an hour to fly the Embraer 190.

Also only fly over oceans, because never has a commercial plane had to ditch in the ocean. Also, JetBlue doesn’t go there.

Also pack a hearty lunch—it’s chilly up there.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Choire Sicha is the coproprietor of The Awl. More by Choire Sicha