Sun, Oct 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Nervous flyers find a haven

The world's first permanent airport fear-of-flight center has opened where people learn, for example, that an aircraft's wings move but won't break


A review of recent aviation news: Alleged airliner terrorism plotters arrested in London. Fighter jets escorting diverted planes land in Boston and Amsterdam. Crashes in Ukraine and Kentucky. The anniversary of Sept. 11.

Need a tranquilizer with that plane ticket yet?

Argentines don't. In Buenos Aires which has the highest concentration of shrinks to citizens in the world, nail-biting fliers can now fight their fears while fully conscious.

Called Poder Volar, or "Able to Fly" a Spanish and Argentine company that says it is the world's first permanent, in-airport fear-of-flight center, has opened in the Jorge Newbury airport -- itself an ill-lit, depressing space that doesn't exactly inspire warm feelings about traveling.

Creators say the center's location in the ground zero of flight panic shows frazzled fliers that help is available and urges future passengers to visit the den of their fears. Students can also visit for one last pep talk before heading off to the boarding gate.

"It's like a dentist's office next to a restaurant, since people's teeth start hurting when they eat," said Dr Claudio Pla, the Argentine psychiatrist who started the company in 2000. "If you just got off or are about to get on a plane scared, but you see someone else resolving the issue, it inspires them to look for a solution."

In an era of color alert levels, the center joins a burgeoning cottage industry of flight jitter palliatives, said Marc-Antoine Plourde, president of a Montreal fear-of-flight treatment company. He is one of the organizers of a conference planned next spring at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency based in Montreal, where organizers expect more than 200 participants to discuss fear of flying. They plan to create a flight fear guidebook to distribute to the travel agents and airports.

The largely unregulated fear-of-flight treatment industry includes everything from Chicken Soup for the Soul's Fearless Flight Kit to self-help books, hypnosis tapes to therapists specializing in the phobia, and myriad classes offered by private companies and airlines that realize business profits when customers aren't afraid of the product.

Studies estimate that 16 percent of Western adults refuse to fly. An additional 10 percent to 15 percent of adults fly with some degree of fear, be it of crashing, enclosed spaces, yielding control or embarrassing oneself onboard with erratic fear-fueled behavior. Also, people tend to project doubts around travel -- entering the unknown, separating from loved ones, loneliness -- onto the plane itself, Pla says.

Symptoms are easy to detect: tossing down a preflight drink or sedative, canceling tickets right before a flight, refusing to fly, or being a wreck when you have to fly.

"I think the number [of people who fear flying] is increasing simply because there's more people that travel," Plourde said. "And certainly the terrorism aspect of commercial aviation today is not helping at all."

Unlike periodic courses offered in airports from Phoenix to London, Poder Volar will have professionals available for consultations 12 hours a day on weekdays, part-time on Saturdays, and on-call during Sundays and holidays.

The center offers a three-hour individual class for US$170, or eight-hour group classes for US$220.

Although Pla offers emergency sessions to walk-in passengers who are between flights or about to board for about US$30 per half hour, he says there's little to be done in such a short period of time. Treatment is reduced to a crash course on flight safety, and handing out a booklet on relaxation techniques or a sedative prescription to be filled at the airport pharmacy on the student's way out the door.

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