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Books to Go

Fear and Safety on the Airline Trail

March 13, 1994|COLMAN ANDREWS

COLLISION COURSE: The Truth About Airline Safety by Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith (TAB Books/ McGraw Hill, $21.95 hardcover); THE FEARFUL FLYERS RESOURCE GUIDE, edited by Barry Elkus with Murray E. Tieger, Ph.D. (Argonaut Entertainment, $13.95 paper); FREQUENT FLYER by Bob Reiss (Simon & Schuster, $23 hardcover) and HOW TO BEAT JET LAG: A Practical Guide for Air Travelers by Drs. Dan A. Oren, Walter Reich, Norman E. Rosenthal and Thomas A. Wehr (Henry Holt & Co., $14.95 paper).

According to airline industry sources, somewhere between 25 and 50 million Americans are afraid of flying. Some of these will not fly, period--preferring to lose jobs or strain relationships, or whatever, than to actually let themselves be sealed into one of those winged metal tubes that shoots through the air higher and faster than (perhaps) humankind was meant to travel.

Others--the vast majority, I'd imagine--do fly but aren't crazy about it, and variously fortify themselves with alcohol, tranquilizers or sleeping pills, meditation techniques, prayer or anything else that helps to get them through the flight.

Statistically, of course, air travel is an extremely safe way to travel: U.S. airlines, for instance, have had an average annual fatality rate of 130 passengers over the past 10 years; during the same period, about 50,000 people have died annually in traffic accidents in this country. But, propose consumer advocate Ralph Nader and author-attorney Wesley Smith, air travel really is dangerous--and is growing more so all the time.

All too often, aircraft are outmoded, pilots are insufficiently trained, maintenance has not been performed, airspace is too crowded, anti-terrorist security is lax and so on.

After backing up their claims in sometimes alarming detail, what they recommend is not avoiding air travel, but flying "smart"--knowing how to dress and act and what to watch for--and taking an active role in passenger advocacy groups.

Barry Elkus and Murray Tieger, who clearly don't think anyone should be particularly scared of flying, outline more than 100 programs, services and other resources aimed at banishing the frightened flyer's fear.

Bob Reiss would seem to have good reason to be afraid of flying: The Swissair 747 on which he and his wife were flying between New York and Zurich in the winter of 1989, lost an engine and then rapidly lost altitude and speed--though it did land safely, returning to New York. Reiss' reaction, though, was journalistic: What goes on behind the scenes on a jetliner? he wondered.

To find out, he convinced Delta Airlines to let him ride for three days and nights in the jump seat of an 18-year-old Lockheed TriStar, and then to hang out around various Delta facilities and dig into virtually every other aspect of the airline's operation. The resulting book is snappy, sometimes funny, sometimes even vaguely astonishing (as when Reiss watches the jetliner virtually land itself)--and, some less-than-confidence-inspiring tales notwithstanding, will probably make even the flight-fearing feel better about taking off.

Of course, to some seasoned fliers, the worst thing about flying someplace is the way it makes you feel when you arrive. Drs. Oren et al. have studied the literature on jet lag carefully and developed a scientifically based program for eluding jet lag's discomforts. This has to do largely with exposure to light or darkness and patterns of exercise and rest, and involves the use of eyeshades and a sleep mask--both included with the book.

I haven't tested the method proposed, but the instructions are detailed and lengthy. It takes six pages, 18 steps and six days of modified behavior to counteract jet lag from a trip between Thailand and the East Coast, for instance. Jet lag can certainly be a problem, but in letting it rule his or her life for nearly a week in this manner, I suspect, the traveler takes a cure that is worse than the malady.

Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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