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Forget Therapy; They're Not Flying Anywhere Now

Since the attacks, demand for clinics dealing with aeroanxiety has plummeted.

November 16, 2001|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On her last flight, back in June, Nancy Wright came close to mastering her fear of flying. As her American Airlines jet took off from Austin, Texas, for Orlando, Fla., the 30-year-old trade show planner took a deep breath, closed her eyes and squeezed the armrest, releasing every 15 seconds, just as she had learned in therapy.

When the aircraft encountered turbulence, she imagined the plane as a piece of fruit suspended in Jell-O, wiggling and jiggling but still solid. When bumps and noises threatened to overwhelm her, she closed her eyes and pictured herself on her wedding day. "It felt like real progress," Wright recalled.

Millions of Americans are afraid to fly, a phobia known as aeroanxiety. In recent years, many of them turned to fear-of-flying clinics for help, often persuaded by the airlines, bosses and family members who all had motives for getting them in the air. For many, the classes were a godsend; most programs boasted success rates of 90% or higher.

But like so many other things, the events of Sept. 11 changed all that. Wright promptly quit therapy. And, to the chagrin of her husband, she also scrapped plans to fly from her home state of Texas to New Jersey on Nov. 1 to visit friends, even though their nonrefundable tickets and hotel rooms had already cost them $1,000.

"My flying fears and terrorism ... it's too much," Wright confessed. "There's not a pill big enough that could make me handle both."

Since the day hijackers smashed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, demand for programs specializing in fear of flying has fallen to an all-time low. Even as psychologists have retooled their message to validate the reality of clients' fears, the clients are not listening. And Monday's passenger jet crash in New York only reinforced people's already exacerbated fears.

There has been so little interest in fear-of-flying seminars that Northwest Airlines, the only major carrier to provide them, canceled its $450-per-person program for the rest of this year.

"I was thinking we'd be flooded with business all over the place, even worrying that we'd have to turn people away," said Fran Lawrence, a manager at the Fear of Flying Clinic, an independent company, which operates at San Francisco International Airport. In the past, such businesses always received a flood of calls and new enrollees after a crash. "But it's been so quiet," said Lawrence. "We're not even getting inquiries anymore." She said Monday's crash resulted in only a handful of calls--but they came from reporters, not potential clients.

As surprising as it seems, human behavior experts say the phenomenon makes sense. In the past, flying phobias were based on irrational fears generated by improbable cinematic scenarios of catastrophe and mayhem.

"As I see it, people are basically afraid of terrorists now and of flying only secondarily so," said Ron Doctor, a Woodland Hills therapist whose Freedom to Fly program is in its 25th year. Doctor says he used to average three or four calls a week, but he has had only one in the past month and a half.

"The truly phobic are too nervous to seek help," said Tom Bunn, a former commercial airline pilot and current fear-of-flying counselor who runs the Connecticut-based Seminars on Aeroaxiety Relief Inc. "If people were afraid to fly before, they're certainly not going to want to now."

Studies have shown that aeroanxiety is a phobia shared by as many as one in three people. But not all of them are fearful because they consider flying to be unsafe. Rather, their anxieties are often rooted in other phobias, of heights, or crowded places, for example.

"If I could sit with the pilot in the cockpit the whole flight, I'd be fine," said Paul Ballard, 34, of Houston. For him, the fear stemmed from a lack of control. "My fear isn't so much of the plane crashing, it's what I'm going to go through until I get there....I relinquish all control once I walk on that plane."

It got so bad for Ballard that 10 years ago he quit his job as a software consultant because he was required to travel frequently. Now self-employed, he hasn't taken a business flight since. And after Monday, he doubts he'll even visit his 9-year-old son, who lives in New York, anytime soon. "There's no way anybody can tell me flying is completely safe right now," Ballard said. "It's not. You're not safe."

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