Just thinking about a trip to Southern Argentina with her boyfriend makes Rebecca Quiring’s face warm and her heart race, but not because of the romantic possibilities.
Quiring is terrified of flying. In the days before a trip, she becomes increasingly apprehensive and begins to make excuses not to travel. When finally on the plane, her anxiety is overwhelming.
“I can’t keep my mind from asking questions: Was that turn too steep? What was the sound? What if it breaks?” she said. “It comes back to a fear of death. Even if it is safe, what if?”
In response to the fears of passengers like Quiring, Vancouver Airport Chaplain Layne Daggett now offers workshops for fearful fliers, providing assistance that targets an individual’s specific anxieties about air travel.
”My type of ministry tries to meet whatever need there is,” said Daggett of the interfaith chapel. “Whether that be refugees, whether that be someone who needs a meal before their flight, or whether that be someone who is afraid of flying.”
The workshop may be the first of its kind among major Canadian airports.
There is no such formal support program available for frightened passengers at Toronto Pearson International, Ottawa International or Montréal–Trudeau International, according to the airports’ customer information.
In August, Vancouver International Airport handled approximately 1.7 million passengers, and the numbers are expected to increase as the 2010 Games approach. How many of these passengers will be sweating in the skies is unknown, but the fear is common enough to attract the attention of research psychologists.
Dr. Sheila Woody, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, said there are two different kinds of fear of flying.
“There’s one kind of fear where the person is afraid that the plane is going to fall out of the sky,” Woody said. “They respond to cues like bumps and unexpected changes in altitude, sensations they may experience. It’s all about the plane.”
The other class of fear concerns the claustrophobic nature of aircraft travel. Travelers who anticipate themselves panicking in enclosed spaces are also afraid of publicly embarrassing themselves.
“These people,” Woody said, “are not listening to the sounds on the plane. They’re focused on when the door is going to open again.”
She said workshops like Daggett’s can diffuse control anxieties if passengers are briefed on what sounds and turbulent effects to expect during flight.
She said there is great benefit in attending a workshop, as lack of information or misconceptions about flying often accelerate fears and exacerbate anxieties.
Putting their life into unknown hands is a significant challenge for many fliers.
“That’s the thing about being on an airplane,” said Woody. “Not only are you not driving, you can’t even see the driver.”
Trusting the unknown
At her first session, Quiring told Daggett about recent flying nightmares, during which the airplane would pull back in unexpected loop-de-loops.
Her fears do not keep her from flying, although they have noticeably worsened in the past few years.
It can take several sessions for an exceptionally nervous passenger to confidently board an aircraft. The chaplain once spent many hours coaxing a frightened woman to the airport parking lot. The mere smell of the terminal made her sick with anxiety.
Daggett’s approach does not penetrate the psyche, rather, he seeks the roots of an individual’s fears and addresses them.
In a pinch, it acts as a band-aid solution for the immediate problems faced by a paralyzed passenger with five minutes to board his honeymoon plane.
Wendy Rubuliak brings 40 years experience as a flight attendant with Air Canada to assist Daggett’s workshops. She also identified the loss of control as a primary source of passenger anxiety.
“When you ride a bicycle, you are in control of a bicycle,” she said. “When you get in a boat, you are in control of that boat. When you board an aircraft, you are not in control.”
Though still nervous after the session, Quiring more clearly understood the root of her fear.
“I realized it’s a control issue for me,” she said, “and I think I’m now in a greater position to trust the guy up front.”