Guestwords: The Anxious Flier

By Sandy Camillo

    You line up like a captive on a pirate ship, steeling yourself for the final walk off the plank. Common sense reminds you that air travel is one of the safest modes of transportation. And yet just to be on the safe side, you surreptitiously glance at the other passengers to catch a sign of any instability that might have been overlooked during check-in.
    Suddenly a voice is heard over the speaker system, “The flight to Miami will be late taking off,” and a collective groan is heard from the passengers on line. Everyone scatters as cellphones are whipped out of pockets to notify the travelers’ friends and families to start dinner without them.
    This simple announcement can trigger a variety of scenarios in the mind of an imaginative passenger. Is it a simple maintenance issue that is causing the delay, or is a temporary fix being applied to an airplane that has made one too many flights? Although the sun is shining at the departure airport, perhaps a decision has been made to delay the flight until a series of tornadoes moves out of the flight path. To the suspicious mind, images of drunken pilots and called-in bomb threats increase an already tense mood.
    There was a magazine article many years ago that advised fearful fliers never to read about or view photos of airplane crashes. However, even without media input, it is very difficult today to insulate yourself from the ominous possibilities of air travel. How many ways can you rationalize the need for removing your shoes when going through security other than acknowledging their possible use as containers for explosives? Or do you start to become uneasy while undergoing the latest hand-scanning for bomb-making residue?
    What determines your level of anxiety as an airline passenger? People fly for business, pleasure, or as the result of an emergency, sickness, or death. Expectations of what awaits you upon disembarking influence your emotions when flying. If you are going to visit your mom in the hospital the entire trip will be spent anticipating her condition. It’s already party time if your destination is a beautiful tropical island or reunion with a loved one.
    We all know people who can never relinquish control of any situation as well as happy souls who are content just to be alive. If we fall into that first group, we become anxious when abdicating our control, but we’ve learned to employ different methods to sooth our anxiety. If felled by a serious illness we still maintain the right to choose the doctor who will care for us and to research his or her qualifications. When we fly we have no idea whose hands we are placing our lives into. That soothing voice telling us to relax and enjoy the ride could be the voice of a severely depressed person planning on flying himself and us into oblivion.
    People with controlling personalities experience an uncomfortable sense of helplessness when they become simply part of the pack. And unless your face appears continuously on the front page of magazines, you will become just another anxious face in the crowd while waiting to board an airplane.
    The social equity seemingly established while waiting to board vanishes when the magical words “boarding first class” are heard. The reality surfaces that there are three classes of people who fly: the wealthy, the frequent flier road warrior, and everyone else. The third class quietly watches while the privileged few elbow to the front of the line with superior smiles on their faces. Their self-esteem plummets to new lows as they contemplate what the words “first class” mean. If they’re not in it does that mean that they are second class? And what does that imply? None of these thoughts help to relax the already disgruntled passenger.
    You have spent the two hours waiting to board your flight thoroughly studying your fellow passengers and are finally satisfied that there are no terrorists on board. Only then do you notice that in the corner someone is hacking away with what is certain to be a highly contagious virus, while several people back is a young family with four children all under the age of 6. Possible death or certain torture — which of these passengers would you want to sit next to?
    Finally you are seated on the plane. It is backing out and your long ordeal is over. The plane comes to a screeching halt and the captain’s voice can be heard thanking us for our patience but he’s sorry to say a minor glitch has come up and we must return to the gate. As we slump back into our seats we wonder what the code words “minor glitch” really mean.
    Maybe that happy soul across the aisle has some extra happy pills he can share.

    Sandy Camillo, a regular “Guestwords” contributor, lives in St. Louis and East Hampton.