As with any new experience, the first time you fly you will doubtless have many misconceptions, and perhaps even some completely irrational fears. I'm talking here about your average, everyday, run of the mill kind of international holiday flight. I'm not familiar with helicopters, domestic flights, private jets, fighter planes, hang gliders or any other such exotic wonders.
I took my first two return flights this summer, so my experiences and misconceptions are still fresh in my mind. I now have experience of four airports, but limited to flying within Europe, for which there is only a token amount of security at each end of the flight. This situation is of course likely to change following the events in New York this September (on my first flight I could see into the cockpit and wave at the pilot, on my second I wasn't even allowed hand luggage). Since I've never flown on a major inter-continental flight, or a very large plane for that matter, I'll leave a treatment of the ins and outs of customs, in-flight entertainment and how to deal with long boring air travel for everybody else to cover.
The first thing you should realise is that international airports are mostly huge. If you drive there and park (which is generally prohibitively expensive) you will almost certainly have to get on a bus to take you to the terminal. It may take you a while to find the check-in desk, so when they say arrive two hours early, do it.
The least surprising thing about airports is how similar they are to bus and train stations. Just like anywhere there's a lot of waiting to do, there are never quite enough chairs. So expect to stand, to queue, and to tolerate screaming children. Slightly more surprising is how much they resemble large shopping centres, which is both useful and at the same time rather distracting.
At check-in, be prepared with your passport and your tickets or confirmation number, but also be prepared to hand over all of your baggage (especially at the moment since security is tight). Put goods that will have to be hand luggage in an easily accessible place. If you have a camera, don't load it with film before the flight so you can just leave it in your luggage and not worry about the scanners. Put any films you do have in your pockets for safe-keeping. To save any hassle, buy a stick or roll-on deodorant and don't worry yourself with pressurised containers.
Once you've checked in, there really is nothing to do but work your way to the correct departure gate, stop for bag searches and metal detectors, grab a coffee and a sandwich and wait it out. Take note, if the weather is at all inclement (especially fog), your flight will be late.
Boarding is as straight forward as you can imagine. You walk down some corridors, out onto the strip and either straight on the plane or onto a bus which will take you to your plane. At this point you'll get to see some of the weird stuff on the runways. Almost every vehicle at the airport is custom made for the job and most of them look like a cross between lego models, bad sixties concept cars and James Bond underground monorail trains.
Once you're in your seat - fasten your seatbelt, secure any hand luggage and await the bizarre rituals that are in store for you. You may be offered an in flight magazine at this point - do not be fooled - this is just a very dull catalogue. Unless you really need perfume, chenille sweaters, boxes of chocolate or a swimming costume right now, you can safely decline it (or take it out of curiosity if you like). With a bit of luck, you'll be blessed with the full complement of flight attendants: women with way too much make-up1 (apparently there's a minimum amount), men who are extremely camp2 (apparently there are as many as 50% homosexual male flight attendants) and stereotypically named pilots3.
The final exciting thing that happens before take off is what I like to call the safety dance. This is the part you've probably seen on television where the cabin crew read out the emergency procedures, and act them out at intervals along the plane. For some reason, I didn't expect this to be as theatrical, laboured or creepy as it actually is. The blank expressions on the faces of the cabin crew are wonderful (and their standard thickness make-up can't be helping either).
We're Flying Now...
As the aircraft taxis towards its runway, the best thing seems to be to stay calm (although you can afford yourself a little nervous excitement at this time). When the plane begins to accelerate you will feel it. Don't be alarmed. When the plane tips back and begins to climb, you will feel it. Don't be alarmed. Enjoy the view. If you didn't get the window seat, you really should have. You're a first time flyer, it's only fair. If the weather is clear the clouds genuinely will look like Carebear style cotton candy. It's difficult to grasp a sense of scale but wait until you see another plane.
Before you reach the clouds, take a look at the ground. It's a big fat cliche I know, but the cars really do look like ants, the fields look like patchwork quilts and the lakes and rivers look like frosted glass. I'd only just made it into the air when I wanted to jump out and enjoy the view4 on the way down. I've suffered mild vertigo in the past, but it just wasn't a problem in the plane.
Landing for me was, uneventfully enough, like take-off in reverse. I hear it can be a lot bumpier however. Disembarking the plane too was rather like getting on in reverse (pedants take note - we were walking forwards though). When you make your way back through the destination terminal, double check that the mass of people you're following are all going to collect their baggage too, and make sure you're stood at the right stand.
If there's some kind of etiquette to bag collection I didn't spot it. Just stand and watch everyone else's bags go by until yours arrives - it's bound to be the last one off. Marvel at everybody's luggage, some people put some amazing things on planes let alone their matching crazy suitcases. If your flights are like mine that really is it, no more queues or anything, as far as I can tell you're free to leave. Just choose the appropriate gate and you're on your way. If someone is meeting you, get them to write your name on some card. You'll feel important that way.
Travel safe now! Good luck kids...
1Much like the ladies on the counters in department stores, it's hard to imagine them without their make-up. Their voices are equally forced into the same cheery disposition that their painted-on smiles bestow upon them.
2Standard disclaimer here: I have nothing against camp people, or homosexuals of either gender. Just a little unusual to see so many in one place.
3I kid you not, I flew with Irish airline Ryanair and my pilots were Tom O'Connor and Dylan McCarthy.
4A friend of mine went one better than me. He too left his first flight until he was twenty, but he wanted such a hands on experience he decided to land himself: his first flight was a sky diving lesson!