High Anxiety

How to Cope with Air Travel Stress

It's true airlines can't control the weather and must cope with overwhelmed air-traffic control systems, but they—like passengers—could build bigger cushions into their schedules, say critics.

"The tighter the schedule, the greater the likelihood that problems will arise," says Sarason.

Candid communication would help too, says Sarason.

"Airlines have a right to schedule flights when they feel it's best to schedule them, but they should at least let people know that 35 minutes is not much time to get from one terminal to another."

Consumer demand for cheap fares plays a major role in all of this. Thanks to deregulation, airlines compete viciously. As a result, flying is more affordable, but the meals are cheaper, seats tighter and planes fuller—all fuel for irritation.

In addition, prices swing drastically according to numerous variables such as time of day and day of week. The result? Fare envy.

"I think now people are much more aware that on the same plane for the same seat people are paying wildly different fares," says Horsey. "It makes you want to get the lowest fare [and] makes you very aware if you don't have it."

Even so, at its heart, the Bricker/Sarason study is less an indictment of the airline industry than a call for antidotes to its inherent stresses.

Eliminating excessive delays, lost luggage and confusing pricing is a job for Congress and airline CEOs.

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"What Jonathan and I are concerned about is what can the individual traveler do—without waiting for these changes that may take years to come about," says Sarason.

The key is adaptive behavior, say Sarason and Bricker. Examples include:

  • Establish a prearranged backup plan in case your flight is late.

  • Schedule nonstop flights whenever possible.

  • Learn relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.

    Until now, Sarason's work at the UW has focused on test anxiety. Besides exploring a new subject, his air-travel study marks his first use of the Internet to collect subject responses. It probably won't be the last, given how convenient it was for subjects to respond and for Sarason and Bricker to manage the data—all via a secure Web site.

    "I think the Internet is going to make a big difference in how we do psychological research," says Sarason.

    In the future, Sarason and Bricker hope to repeat the study with other groups of travelers such as flight attendants, pro athletes and tourists and measure the effects of other factors such as separation from family. And they'd love to team up with an airline to train flight attendants and produce in-flight videos that help people cope with stressful situations that arise.

    "It wouldn't be difficult to teach passengers some relaxation skills and provide more information on what to expect at their destination," says Sarason.

    Friberg applauds the idea, but if current in-flight safety videos are any example, he doubts airlines would be willing to address those issues frankly.

    "In the unlikely event of a water landing?" he says mockingly. "C'mon. That's a crash into the sea!"

    Temple says people already understand air travel is "a little risky sometimes" without hearing it from an in-flight video.

    "I can't imagine airlines saying, 'This is how you should be prepared for losing your luggage. This is how you should be prepared for losing your ticket.' What to expect at [your] destination is reasonable. I don't know about the relaxation thing. I don't see that happening."

    Neither does Quarton. She says that for some people, learning to cope with stress might actually cause stress by introducing possibilities they wouldn't otherwise have considered.

    Nevertheless, Sarason believes it's only a matter of time before air-travel stress factors are confronted openly. Although not nearly as life-threatening, he compares the situation to cigarettes and cancer.

    "As the information multiplied, at least it became necessary to put warning labels on packages," says Sarason. "The same thing is going to happen here. Because the stresses are just going to get worse."

    Brad Broburg is a longtime south King County journalist and current free-lancer specializing in business.

  • 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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