UW News

August 16, 1999

When it comes to business travel there’s something stressful in the air

For millions of business travelers, flying is no picnic. It is a stressful ordeal that has become an integral part of their working lives, even as airlines report record passenger loads and stories of passengers blowing their fuses on flights proliferate.

But air travel doesn’t necessarily have to be stressful, according to University of Washington psychologists who have developed a new scale to measure air travel stress. They validated the scale in an Internet-based study of more than 300 San Francisco- and Seattle-based employees of an international consulting firm who flew an average of 21 business trips in the previous year.

The researchers, Jonathan Bricker, a UW doctoral student, and psychology professor Irwin Sarason, reported in a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society that men and women experience air travel stress in different ways.

The results suggest an interaction of personal factors, such as anxiety and anger, as well as situational factors, such as travel frequency to different work sites. Anxious women traveling to unfamiliar destinations experience a high level of air-travel stress. By contrast, anxious women traveling to familiar destinations experienced a moderate level of stress. Men’s result were similar, except that men who were anger prone were more likely to have air-travel stress.

“The anxious women in our survey looked at travel as being stressful,” said Bricker. “When they were going to a new destination these women worried more, for example about their personal safety, and were concerned by such things as new procedures to get in and out of an airport, making a connecting flight or wondering whether their plane will be delayed. Going to a new place almost doubled the amount of stress for women.”

For men, the combination of anger, anxiety and travel to unfamiliar destinations provoked stress. “A lot of men have short fuses and are likely to get angry when they can’t control events like a delay or a crowded plane,” said Sarason. “They get angry and stressed when events and people slow them down. Women are more likely to worry or be afraid about what may happen to them, perhaps because they have more thoughts of being a victim and having to be more careful.”

While air-travel stress may be ubiquitous for business travelers, the UW researchers believe it is not inevitable.
“We can’t eliminate air-transit stress simply by getting rid of angry and anxious people,” said Sarason. “What we have to look at is how we can help people to cope better, such as having the airlines show videotapes illustrating the problems of air-travel stress and how to deal with them. It wouldn’t be difficult to teach passengers some relaxation skills and provide more information on what to expect at their destination.”

Travelers can benefit from learning about adaptive behavior in handling unexpected situations.

“It’s desirable to anticipate the possibility of having problems so you can handle them, but it’s not adaptive behavior for people to explode on an airplane by throwing a drink or screaming at a flight attendant when a flight is delayed. If you know you are going to be late, adaptive behavior is thinking about who you need to call and make alternative arrangements because of the delay,” Sarason said.

Another adaptive behavior would be to learn to avoid feeling overwhelmed by things that people can’t control such as airline delays, crowded flights and jammed overhead luggage bins, Bricker added.

In their study, Bricker and Sarason found that the amount of travel stress among business people fell in a predictable pattern. The majority experienced some or a moderate amount of travel stress. A small number of people suffered either a high stress level or little or no stress. The researchers noted that what could be stressful to one person might be exhilarating to another.

The study included 206 men and 123 women whose work required them to make between four and 150 air trips during the previous year. Ninety percent of those flights were in coach class.

The Air Transit Stress Scale that Bricker and Sarason developed measures how upset people become when they experience 11 typical situations faced by travelers. It asks how upset travelers became if their plane took off or landed late; missed a connecting flight; waited for a car rental, hotel or airport shuttle; waited in line at a car rental, hotel or airline check-in counter; were given wrong directions; had baggage hand-inspected by security people; an airplane was crowded; the airport was crowded; got lost; had trouble finding the gate for their plane; or their baggage was lost.

To reach this highly mobile group of frequent travelers, the researchers developed a secure Web site through which they administered their test and several others that measure anxiety and anger. Employees logged on to the site last November with secured passwords.

The research sprang from Bricker’s undergraduate experience at the University of California, Berkeley, where he paid for his tuition by selling airline tickets for four years. Many of his customers were business travelers and he saw how travel placed strains on their personal lives.

In the future, he and Sarason hope to replicate the study with other groups of travelers, such as airline flight attendants, sales people, professional athletes, artists and vacationers. They’d also like to work with an airline to develop an in-flight video and to train flight attendants how to deal with and help passengers who are stressed.

For more information, contact Bricker at (206) 685-2448 or jbricker@u.washington.edu or Sarason at (206) 543-6542 or isarason@u.washington.edu. Sarason will be unavailable
Aug. 19-24.