There’s a fascinating psychological reason flying can make situations escalate so quickly
Several things are taking place on and off an aeroplane that can contribute to feelings of panic and anxiety
By Erin Brodwin
A passenger was dragged off of an allegedly overbooked United Airlines flight by aviation officers on Sunday after refusing to give up his seat. A video of the incident attracted international attention and prompted some to call for a boycott of United.
Although the incident was extreme, it’s hardly the first time an aeroplane has been the scene of such troubling behaviour. So what’s going on in that cramped cabin that appears to make us all so tense? Are we all suffering from an undiagnosed fear of flying?
Psychologically speaking, several things are taking place on and off an aeroplane that can contribute to feelings of panic and anxiety — even in people who might not normally suffer from it. For one thing, while phobias like acrophobia (fear of heights) and claustrophobia (fear of closed-in spaces), are relatively rare individually, the chances that a good chunk of the passengers on a plane will suffer from at least one of them can be surprisingly high simply because aeroplane travel happens to tap into so many of them.
From the time we arrive at the airport (potentially triggering enochlophobia, or fear of crowds) to the moment we buckle in next to another passenger (potentially triggering xenophobia, or fear of strangers), dozens of different aspects of flying can make us feel uneasy. There’s also the irrational fear of crashing, despite the fact that the chances of such an event happening are so low. And while the National Institutes of Mental Health says only about 6.5 per cent of people have a specific phobia linked with aeroplane travel (also known as aviophobia), recent research suggests that the number of Americans with some kind of anxiety about flying is much higher, with some studies pegging the figure at roughly 40 per cent.
Beyond triggering phobias, flying taps into several other more common sources of anxiety as well.
You know that antsy feeling you get when the airline is boarding people with seats at either the front or the back of the plane first even though you know there’s a faster solution? You’re far from alone — and it turns out you’re right about there being a better way to do things. A recent experiment comparing 5 different boarding methods found that the one most airlines currently use (boarding from back to front) also happens to be one of the slowest. While the most commonly-used boarding method takes an average of over 6 minutes, another method, dubbed the Steffen method after the astrophysicist who came up with it, takes about half that time.
And airlines may be causing passengers anxiety in more ways than one. A recent study published in the Journal of Travel Research suggests that last-minute seat arrangement changes — even if they involve getting bumped up to first class — can make a lot of people upset. In people who may be prone to feeling guilty, the excitement of a last-minute seat upgrade can even be cancelled out by feelings of “existential guilt” linked with being treated to a benefit they see as unearned, according to the study authors.
So next time you tell yourself to calm down about your next flight, know that it’s perfectly normal to feel antsy about aeroplane travel. You’re not crazy, and you’re definitely not alone.