Fear-of-Flying Programs Are Soaring

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, anxiety about air travel is way up. So is the business of dealing with the jitters

At least one sector of the aviation industry isn't suffering these days: fear-of-flying programs. Since the September 11 attacks, clinics designed to help people conquer their anxieties about air travel have been swamped with phone calls. "People who were never afraid of flying [before] now are," says Carol Stauffer, director of Pittsburgh-based Fly with Confidence program, which has seen a 30% jump in inquiries about the course.

Immediately after the attacks, there was a lull in interest in the classes. Then, reality began to set in when many people realized that, eventually, they would have to take to the skies again. Furthermore, the attacks may have intensified the fears of those who have always been anxious about air travel. "Initially, most fearful flyers who were even thinking about flying put if off after something like this happens. Then, they start to come back and confront the fear," says Lisa Hauptner, vice-president of Seminars on Aeroanxiety Relief (SOAR).


  The classes aren't the only product getting a boost from heightened jitters. For instance, Broadview Media and Northwest Airlines have sold hundreds of fear-of-flying self-help packages that include a handbook, breathing tube (since many panicky flyers use breathing exercises to calm their nerves), and video and audio cassettes. "Online orders went way up after the disaster," says company spokesperson Denise Gardner.

The programs are the last resort for most fearful flyers. Most host meetings with behavioral therapists, flight attendants, air-traffic controllers, and pilots to target aviophobia, which affects about 20% of the population. Ideally, the classes hold meetings in grounded planes to help teach people to feel safe under realistic conditions.

Ironically, the tightened airport security is hampering the programs just when they're most needed. Carol Cott Gross, director of New York-based Fly Without Fear, says some logistical matters need to be worked out before her meetings can start up again. Because New York's LaGuardia Airport is off-limits for security reasons, her group has been unable to meet since the attacks and doesn't have access to stationary planes. At other airports, access to areas such as the control tower has been limited, and "graduation" flights for people who have overcome their fears have been suspended.


  The specter of terrorism has also forced many programs to focus far more on security issues. Fran Lawrence of the Fear of Flying Clinic in San Mateo, Calif., says her group "may have to revamp the whole program" based on changes in airport-security protocol. Both the Northwest Airlines Wings program and the Fly Without Fear program will bring in speakers from the Federal Aviation Administration to address clients directly about their security concerns. Hearing from security experts "will be a confidence builder," says Gross.

The other big problem is that the fear of terrorism is rational, unlike the irrational anxieties that normally discourage people from boarding an aircraft. Still, everyone knows routine air travel will have to resume at some point. "The bottom line is that people have to fly," says Gross. For fear-of-flying programs around the country, that means healthy sales.

By Julia Cosgrove

Edited by Thane Peterson

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