High Anxiety

The First Serious Study on Air Travel Stress

The Bricker/Sarason study involved more than 300 Seattle and San Francisco-based employees of an international consulting firm who flew an average of 21 business trips in the previous year—90 percent of the time in coach class.

"It's the first methodologically sound study done on the topic," says Sarason, who eventually hopes to partner with an airline or other corporation to promote remedies to air travel stress.

As part of their research, Bricker and Sarason developed an Air Transit Stress Scale to gauge how upset people become when they encounter 11 typical situations faced by travelers.

Key findings? Anxious people are more likely to suffer air-travel stress. The risk climbs for men who are also anger-prone and for women who fly to unfamiliar destinations. Anxious women who fly to unfamiliar destinations are at the greatest risk due to concerns about their personal safety.

That kind of information could be useful to employers when deciding who to send on business trips and where to send them, says Sarason. "I think it's really important for them to know who's going to have trouble and who's going to handle it."

Sarason says a cartoon by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's David Horsey, '75, captures the kind of conditions that led to the study. The cartoon appeared last May after Horsey returned from a trip to Phoenix.

Link to Horsey's air transit stress cartoon

"Everyone was crowded in like sardines," recalls Horsey. "There was one woman standing up during most of the flight because she was seated next to this very large guy who was crammed into a very small seat. He was uncomfortable. She was uncomfortable.

"I was surrounded by the WSU baseball team, who were all big guys. The meal was peanuts. It just struck me how weird this was."

After winning the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, Horsey has been flying a lot more lately—and enjoying it less.

"Most of my experiences have been OK. I'm just anxious to put [the flight] behind me," he says.

That's hardly the attitude airlines hope to inspire with slogans such as "Fly the Friendly Skies" and "The Only Way to Fly."

In fact, Sarason and Bricker believe fewer passengers would be fed up if airlines would only fess up to the realities of air travel.

"The airlines have a tendency to make things seem a lot better than they are," says Sarason. "I think it's the expectations that people have, that influence how they're going to react if bad things happen."

Horsey has learned to lower his.

"I assume the worst, which I guess is good, because it's usually better," he says.

Usually, but not always.

When a flight between Memphis and Chattanooga, Tenn., was overbooked, Horsey volunteered to be bumped in exchange for $500 and a free hotel room.

"It sounded like a great idea at the time."


It took 1-1/2 hours for someone to arrive with the voucher for Horsey's hotel, which turned out to be "very ratty [and] in a sleazy strip near the airport." By the time he got there, the hotel restaurant was closing and the only nearby places to eat were "a couple of strip joints."

"The good will they expected to get from me they lost pretty quickly because they handled it so poorly," says Horsey.

As part of their ongoing research studies, Sarason and Bricker invite travelers to send e-mail in which they share their air-travel experiences—"not just the problems people have, but what have been the successes," says Sarason. Send comments to isarason@u.washington.edu

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