Carol Stauffer has had more than one fearful flyer tell her mournfully, "My luggage has gone all kinds of places, but I never have."
They get to the airport and check their bags, but at the last moment cannot actually get on the airplane.Ms. Stauffer is program director of USAir's "Fearful Flyers Program," which has helped more than 3,000 people overcome flying phobias since it began in 1975.
Fear of flying is not usually a fear of crashing.
"The main fear is not having control over the situation - turning your life over to someone else whom you've never seen," Ms. Stauffer said.
Other flying fears, in order of relative incidence:
- Claustrophobia: The fear of being enclosed in the airplane - one of the most frequent complants of fearful flyers.
- Fear of heights.
- Fear of crashing or dying.
"It's the confinement in the plane that I have to deal with," said one fearful flyer.
Said a Cincinnati dentist who asked that his name not be published: "I don't care how big the plane is, once they shut the doors ... there's a feeling of approaching disaster."
The dentist learned to manage his fear of flying through treatment by psychiatrist Enrique Kaufman, who specializes in treating phobic disorders. Many of his patients have fear of flying.
"Most of them were flying regularly and suddenly developed an acute panic attack," Kaufman explained. "The sensation is very typical of feeling closed in, losing control of themselves and the situation. It's a fear of losing your mind or making a fool of yourself by fainting, having a heart attack, losing control of your legs or screaming and yelling."
Usually none of those things happens, he said, but the fear that they will is so strong that the person is unable to fly.
Sensational airplane crashes and terrorist incidents, such as the Pan Am bombing and crash in Scotland that killed 270 people, or reports of faulty and malfunctioning equipment, such as the United flight in which nine passengers were sucked out of the plane to their deaths, can push people who've been borderline flyers over the edge, experts say.
Fearful flyers try lots of ways of coping.
Some force themselves to fly and try to cope by getting drunk or taking pills, Kaufman said.
Fearful flyers will turn down promotions that demand flying, make excuses to bosses for not going on business trips or drive long hours and arrive exhausted for meetings, Ms. Stauffer said.
What usually causes a fearful flyer to seek help is a pressing need to fly - and to arrive in good mental and emotional shape. Say, for instance, a person needs to fly to interview for the job of a lifetime.
Treatment for fearful flyers may include many or all of the following:
- Education, including statistics about air travel and air safety. Ms. Stauffer points out: "There almost never is an airplane accident, when you consider that every single day 18,000 commercial airplanes take off without a serious incident. Compare that to 48,000 people a year killed in autos."
- Training in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.
- Gradual desensitization to fears of airplanes, by first visiting an airport, then sitting on a grounded plane, then taxiing on the ground and eventually taking a short flight.
- Medication such as tranquilizers, an emergency or interim step until the patient learns to fly with reasonable comfort without medication.
How successful are the treatments?
Kaufman says a goal-oriented patient can usually become comfortable enough to fly in about three months.
Ms. Stauffer says 97 percent of the people in her classes learn to fly. "One man in Washington hadn't flown for seven years - he got nervous just looking at a plane in the sky. The day after the graduation flight, he left for South Africa with no problems at all."
What if you get on an airplane and are suddenly stricken with fear of flying?
First, if you are still on the ground, you have the option of getting off the plane, Ms. Stauffer said. If you are in flight, an attendant can help.
Carol Churchill, a flight attendant with USAir and a volunteer in the Fearful Flyers program, says she tries to reassure "white-knuckle" passengers. She turns on an air vent, offers the passenger a cold towel or drink.
"I've spent several flights just sitting down next to someone and talking - taking their mind off it," she said. "I reassure them that I've been flying for 21 years and it's one of the safest, most comfortable ways of traveling. Your own attitude is the most reassuring thing."
- "Fly Without Fear" is a new book co-authored by Carol Stauffer and Capt. Frank Petee of USAir's Fearful Flyers Program, for do-it-yourself treatment; $9.95 plus $2 mailing; $10.95 plus $2 mailing and handling if you would also like the relaxation tape: USAir, Box 15410, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15237.