The Plight of the Phobic Flyer
With summer fast approaching, now is the time when many of us plan and carry out our vacation plans. We get on the internet, or call the airlines or travel agent, and book our flights. Apart from the inconvenience and stress of the airport security process, most of us manage to cope with airline travel routine without a great deal of anxiety.
There are many people, however, who have never set foot in an airplane due to their phobia about the prospects of flying. Prior to the tragedy of 9/11, I counseled a woman who had never flown before. Her husband and two children would make trips by plane to the Midwest and Florida, leaving mother behind. My patient would make arrangements by train to travel and would meet up with her husband and children several days later. When she came to counseling, she was fed up with her phobia about avoiding flying which had created inconvenience for her and kept her disconnected from taking many family trips. Her phobia about being in an airplane had immobilized her.
She came to counseling because she wanted her phobia resolved. I told her that I would help and immediately contacted various airlines to inquire about training programs for phobic flyers. To my amazement, many airlines had no specific programs to assist phobic flyers. I remember telling one customer service agent, "Your airline is not being very cost-effective. You are ignoring an entire niche market of potential travelers!"
In my exploration to help my client, I found a retired airline pilot by the name of Captain T.W. Cummings from Coral Gables, Florida. He had conducted training programs throughout the airline industry. He sent me a packet of training information for fearful flyers, including an audio program. I loaned the program to my phobic client who religiously reviewed it. We discussed her fears about flying, including basic assumptions that were irrational and were holding her back from boarding a plane.
In order to enhance the quality of care toward this patient, I contacted a representative from Delta Airlines and made provisions for my client and me to meet with the customer service representative at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Arizona at 6:00 A.M. on a Monday morning. In a very calm and reassuring manner, the representative took us on several empty jetliners and discussed every feature of the plane. He took my patient into the cockpit and discussed the ritualistic compliance regulations that are necessary to prepare for flight. We un-boarded the plane and then customer service agent had my patient wait until a plane was preparing for takeoff preparations and then we watched the 7:00 A.M. flight leave the gate.
In addition to the support I have mentioned, there are ways for people to manage the fear of flying by:
- Dealing with anticipatory anxiety by means of cognitive rehearsal (mentally creating imagery of events surrounding the entire flight process).
- Learning how to relax during the takeoff. The first ten minutes of the flight, including the ascent are the most troublesome.
- Securing preferential seating arrangements, if possible.
- Learning how to detach for perceived passenger reaction to your fear.
- Dealing with feelings of being trapped while flying.
- Refocusing attention on activities while flying that minimize fear and anxiety.
Several weeks after our airport "field trip", my patient boarded a plane for the Midwest. She called me upon arrival and was ecstatic. She had left behind the phobic fear that had bound her for years. Several days later, she made a second trip to Florida to visit her in-laws. This phobic flyer would no longer be hooked by the fear that had immobilized her.
Since 9/11, it is not possible to have open access to boarding planes for the kind of experience that my client received. However, no one needs to be held captive to their fear of flying. Cognitive-behavioral talk therapy, along with airline "fear of flying" training concepts , can bring relief for the plight of any phobic flyer.
James P. Krehbiel is a licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist in private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at (480) 664-6665 or through his website at krehbielcounseling.com.