High Anxiety

By Brad Broburg

Like Orville and Wilbur Wright before them, Irwin Sarason and Jonathan Bricker have made aviation history.

And they did it without leaving the ground—not even for 120 feet.

Sarason, a University of Washington psychology professor, and Bricker, a doctoral student, have conducted a pioneering study of people who fly frequently for business. Their research, presented at last year's annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, explored the links between air travel and stress using the Internet as a reporting tool.

Their overall conclusion—flying is no picnic—won't shock anyone whose baggage went to the Twilight Zone or whose plane spent more time on the tarmac than in the sky.

"Everybody has had awful experiences and ... over time the experiences have gotten worse," says Sarason. "You don't have to do a study to find that out."

But even a 747 full of hellish anecdotes is no substitute for formal research if you want to influence airline practices and passenger habits to make flying a more heavenly experience—the ultimate goal of Bricker and Sarason.

If Sarason and Bricker succeed, hordes of frequent flyers—nearly 300 million people fly for business every year—just might hail them as bigger heroes than the Wright brothers.

"There's really no research on the topic," says Sarason. "Here you have hundreds of millions of people running around on planes and we know nothing about them."

Not anymore. Thanks to the two UW researchers, we now know men and women react differently to some aspects of air travel and how someone handles feelings such as anger and anxiety influence a passenger's experience.

So how surprising is that? Perhaps not very. However, with incidents of air rage climbing and passenger volume soaring, "it may be useful to prevent ... people from flying off the handle in the first place," Sarason says dryly. "It scares the hell out of the flight attendants."

Although most people don't act violently, the threat is real. Bricker and Sarason cite statistics estimating 5,000 violent incidents occurred at airports and on airplanes in 1998. A recent Newsweek story cited several incidents. They included:

  • A passenger attacking a flight attendant and two passengers when told he had to wait his turn for a drink.

  • A woman trying to batter her way into the cockpit after learning the flight would be two hours late.

  • Singer Diana Ross, upset at being frisked too intimately, squeezing an airport security woman's breast and asking, "How do you like it?"

  • As part of their ongoing research studies, Sarason and Bricker invite travelers to send e-mail in which they share their air-travel experiences—"not just the problems people have, but what have been the successes," says Sarason. Send comments to isarason@u.washington.edu

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