USAir class targets anxious travelers


February 18, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

If you're one of those white-knuckled travelers who hold their breath on takeoff and say their prayers at the first sign of turbulence, USAir has the ticket for you.

Beginning March 1, the airline will offer its "Fearful Flyers" program at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The course, offered once a year in 12 cities, is taught by a psychiatric social worker and a USAir pilot. Among its 5,000 graduates, the 18-year-old program boasts a 95 percent success rate.

It's not just for first-time fliers or those who rarely step on a plane. Surprisingly, most people who enroll are veteran fliers whose fears have grown worse over the years.

"We have a lot of business people who fly because they have to but they hate it," said Ms. Carol Stauffer, the psychiatric social worker who teaches the course one night a week for five weeks.

"They're drinking or taking tranquilizers. They're lying to bosses. One said 'how many times can you tell your boss you can't travel out of town because your grandmother just died.' "

During the three hourlong sessions, Ms. Stauffer helps students learn to relax and to control their fears. One of the most common phobias -- more prevalent than fear of crashing, she says -- is lack of control.

"You can't say 'pull over, I've had enough. You can't tell them how to drive,' " she says.

Claustrophobia and fear of heights also rank high among fears. "Flying is real different from other fears because you're a captive," Ms. Stauffer said. "Some people get themselves worked up weeks in advance."

The most fearful of the fearful, she says, seem to be lawyers.

Besides businessmen, the program also enrolls retired people who have the time and money to travel but are terrified.

Working with Ms. Stauffer are two USAir pilots and a retired pilot. They give students a better understanding of how an airplane operates, weather conditions and what sounds mean during flights.

"All fearful fliers just know the engines are struggling to get that great big heavy plane off the ground," says retired USAir Capt. Frank Petee. "We tell them it's just as easy for a plane weighing 700,000 pounds with 400 passengers to get in the air as it is for a little trainer plane."

Captain Petee was a co-pilot in 1949 on the first passenger flight for All American Airways, the predecessor of Allegheny Airlines, which ultimately became USAir.

Fearful fliers also think they're suspended in space by a thread, he said. "We explain it as an ocean of air supporting the plane. There's no way it could just fall out of the sky."

Students have a chance to board a USAir plane, sit inside the cockpit and observe routine maintenance outside. They also talk with pilots and flight attendants about their duties and flight experiences.

For graduation, they take an hourlong flight. "It's here they actually get to put the course to the test and move from being fearful to comfortable fliers," Ms. Stauffer said.

The course costs $325. USAir says it makes no profit, with proceeds used to pay for instructional materials and instructors.

For the airline, it's a marketing tool well worth the effort.

"People are so glad that somebody cares they're afraid," Ms. Stauffer says. "Whenever they can, they'll fly USAir."

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