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April 4, 2002

Study shows fliers are more stressed since 9/11

The number of commercial air travelers who now find flying to be at least somewhat stressful has risen dramatically to 81 percent of passengers, according to the first survey measuring the attitudes of people before and after the events of Sept. 11.


The study of nearly 1,900 domestic and international travelers showed that the percentage of passengers who said they were somewhat, moderately or severely stressed by commercial airplane travel jumped from 60 percent among respondents who flew from late May through July 2001, to 81 percent among those who flew in January or February 2002, according to a UW researcher.


The types of anxieties experienced by air travelers also shifted, according to Jonathan Bricker, a UW doctoral student, who conducted the study. Post 9/11 passengers are more focused on personal safety and security while pre 9/11 fliers were more concerned about comfort and convenience. Even so, the post 9/11 passengers did complain about long lines and hassles largely pertaining to security procedures, he said.


Bricker presented his findings recently at meeting of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.


The study showed that women are slightly more concerned than men about traveling today. Among the post 9/11 fliers, 84 percent of the women reported air travel was at least somewhat stressful, compared to 78 percent of the men. Prior to the Sept. 11 hijackings and crashes, males and females had similar levels of air-travel stress. Women’s fears of flying were almost twice as likely to increase as men’s. Thirty-one percent of women who said they were a little or not at all afraid of flying before Sept. 11 are now at least somewhat afraid, in contrast with 16 percent of men.


“Given that our results are for fliers, the fear of air travel is likely to be even greater among a general sample that includes non-fliers as well as fliers,” said Bricker.


The survey also showed that:




  • Fliers are less tense when a flight is late, falling from 71 percent prior to 9/11 to 42 percent today.


  • People are less concerned about a plane sitting at the gate or on the tarmac, dropping from 52 percent to 24 percent.


  • Travelers have a more positive perception of other passengers, including babies and small children, with complaints dipping from 36 percent to 26.


At the same time, Bricker said post Sept. 11 fliers seem to be most stressed by what he called the “hurry up and wait problems” and hassles relating to security. When asked to list the most stressful situation related to taking a flight, fliers most often listed having to arrive early at the airport, waiting, and all types of lines. They also noted a spectrum of nuisances related to security including intrusive security searches, inconsistent security searches and having to pack and dress right to accommodate new security rules. Only a very small percentage of fliers, less than 2 percent, said concerns about terrorism were their primary anxiety.


The two surveys were conducted with U.S and international passengers who were departing from or making connecting flights at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Passengers were approached in waiting areas throughout the airport and asked if they were willing to fill out an air travel experiences survey that took 10 to 15 minutes to complete. A very high percentage, 72 percent, consented and returned the forms. A total of 968 fliers filled out the pre 9/11 survey and 925 participated in the post 9/11 survey.


Respondents in the two groups were remarkably similar. The mean age of participants was 43, and the ages of fliers in each group ranged from 10 to 86. Males slightly outnumbered females, 53 to 47 percent. Half of the participants said they were business travelers.


Bricker and Irwin Sarason, a UW emeritus psychology professor, created the first scientific yardstick for measuring air-travel stress and anxiety over the past several years.


“It is fair to say that the events of Sept. 11 appear to have shifted travelers’ greatest concerns away from flight delays and cancellations,” said Bricker. “Travelers’ current primary preoccupation with their own safety is accompanied by an annoyance with a host of hassles associated with increased security procedures.”


The research was funded by NBBJ Design, an architectural firm, and the UW psychology department in cooperation with the Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.