Sweetening the Skies


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Russavia.

Do your palms sweat when you wake up in the morning and realize you have to get on a plane later?

Do you take deep, calming breaths as you take off, or distract yourself with movies and music, all the while knowing panic is just moments away when you remember you are on a plane?

That fear of flying is called aviophobia and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates about 20 million Americans suffer from it. The intensity of aviophobia ranges from mild to severe; in the most extreme cases people won’t be able to get on an airplane without suffering a panic attack.

Anxiety is the root of the problem, which is offset by various associations (called triggers) with flying, such as loss of control, mechanical malfunction, or the threat of terrorism. Each time aviophobes think about a trigger, it raises their anxiety, causing their bodies to actually respond physiologically. Those physiological symptoms impact the sufferers’ cognitive functioning, making it increasingly difficult for them to reason through stress.

To put it simply: the more people freak out, the harder that makes it for them to logically calm themselves down.

To quell that anxiety psychologists recommend a number of options, including education, therapy, and medication. But for those who end up in the air and discover countless hours of desensitization training ineffective–or that their anti-anxiety medication wore off–what are their solutions?

The answer may be closer than what one may think. Compassionate flight crews might make the experience more tolerable for the anxious passengers.

“We hit some turbulence once and a woman had told me ahead of time she was afraid of flying,” Alyssa Kovacs, flight attendant for a major US carrier, tells BTR.

“So I sat in the aisle and held her hand for 15 straight minutes. I told her to squeeze my hand as hard as she could.”

Upon the woman’s initial confused response, Kovacs assured her to hold her hand and promised everything would be fine.

Indeed, interacting with flight attendants can be a wonderful way to calm nerves. Kovacs explains that flight attendants want to give passengers the best possible experience on their journey, part of which includes helping overcome fears.

Occasionally flight attendants get a bad reputation in the media for having poor attitudes. One USA Today story detailed how a woman was humiliated by a flight attendant when she used the bathroom with an upset stomach. After writing to the airline regarding the incident, a representative called the passenger to say the airline “doesn’t compensate for rudeness.”

Situations like these are often blown up in the media but they’re actually rare, according to Kovacs. She recounts the intense demands of flight attendant schedules on top of the stressfulness that comes with trying to deliver service in a limited time and space. A perceived curtness can often be interpreted as rudeness but these situations may actually be the result of pressure and exhaustion.

“Safety is definitely emphasized in training, but they also encourage us never to lose that personal touch. We are air hosts. That is the most literal description of our job,” she continues.

Even for air passengers who don’t suffer from aviophobia, flight attendants can be a huge comfort during the inevitable travel hassle. Just think how much fun this flight would be:

Recently, some airlines began offering even more personalized services. The Dutch airline KLM launched a campaign called “The Cover Greetings” in 2014, aimed at making travelers feel loved. After the passengers departed from their families at the security gate, flight attendants tracked down their loved ones, gave them markers and paper, and asked them to create hand-written goodbye notes. The crew then rushed ahead of the passengers and placed the notes on their respective airplane seats.

The results seemed successful:

During one of Kovacs’ recent trips, one of the passengers was a little girl who was turning five that very day. Her parents asked the crew ahead of time to present her birthday presents in mid-air. The crew then decided to make the occasion extra special, so they contacted the captain and had him announce over the loudspeaker that it was her birthday. Everyone on the flight clapped and sang “Happy Birthday” to the little girl while the crew trooped down the aisles with her gifts.

“It was the biggest deal for this little girl,” Kovacs recalls, “she stood up on her seat and was waving at everyone and was just so super excited. I definitely like to go above and beyond, with kids specifically–anything to make flying feel a little more magical.”

A helpful hint to getting the best possible service? Next time you’re flying, bring some cookies for your flight crew. Kovacs says you’ll be treated like royalty.