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Albany Airport program aims to take fear out of flying

Albany Airport program aims to take fear out of flying

Psychologist, former pilot to be part of revived Albany International class
Albany Airport program aims to take fear out of flying
Photographer: New York Times

For some, panic sets in during takeoff. For others, it’s when the flight attendants start running through the emergency procedures. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, aviophobia, or fear of flying, is one of the most common phobias in America, affecting an estimated 2.5 percent to 6.5 percent of the population. 

It’s part of the reason why Albany International Airport is bringing back its Fear of Flying class on Saturday. Doug Meyers, the airport’s director of public affairs, said Albany International held the classes years ago, and ever since they stopped he’s been getting calls to bring them back.

Saturday’s two-part class, the first in many years, will be led by Loretta Malta, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, and Rick Weiss, a retired Southwest Airlines pilot. 

According to Malta, causes of aviophobia vary. 

“Sometimes there was a bad flight, a traumatizing event. In some folks, the fear of flying comes out of a generalized anxiety disorder, where the person worries about everything and flying is just one more thing on the list to worry about. In some people, the phobia is a panic disorder where the person is afraid of having panic attacks in situations from which escape would be difficult. It could be multiple causes,” Malta said. 

From her Albany office, she often sees patients who are afraid of traveling by plane and says there are ways to cope with it, including cognitive behavioral therapy, which she specializes in. 

“Cognitive behavioral therapy refers to changing how you interpret things, how you think about things, what you say to yourself. So if you are someone who is afraid that you’re going to have a panic attack sitting on the plane, you’re interpreting that as it’s going to be this awful, horrible thing that’s going to be this big catastrophe,” Malta said. 

Instead, she encourages people to change their mindset, to acknowledge their own discomfort but also to have a plan to cope with it, including breathing exercises and other methods. Then, with the behavioral piece of the treatment, she encourages people to fly. 

“With flying, you might just take a short flight -- there are plenty of flights from Albany to New York City, for example. I think that’s under an hour. Take a short flight and work up to a long flight,” Malta said. 

Malta plans to explain and go through self-care and other ways to cope on Saturday. 

Weiss will be coming at the issue from a completely different viewpoint. 

The Ballston Spa resident was a pilot for 42 years before retiring roughly 11 years ago. 

“I understand why people are afraid. I’ve seen it many, many times and it’s a perfectly legitimate fear,” Weiss said. 

He’s seen his fair share of people panicking on planes, and said that some passengers really start to worry when the flight attendants go through the emergency briefing. 

“People are thinking ‘My God, we’re going to land in the water, we’re going to get depressurized and explode.’ I can understand that fear and it really comes down to a lack of understanding of why we do that,” Weiss said. 

According to Weiss, the briefing is federally mandated. It’s not necessarily a warning of what’s to come.  

During his years as a pilot, he had to stop the plane once right before takeoff because one passenger was too anxious and needed to get off. So he understands that the class is needed.

“I [try] to go with the technical side of it. I just offer my expertise on the quality of the airplane, the redundancy of the systems, the reliability of the equipment, the reliability, training and professionalism of the crews, from pilots to flight attendants to mechanics to ground service agents, you name it,” Weiss said. 

From his perspective, planes can be much safer than the vehicles people drive on a daily basis. 

“I like to compare it to a car. You have one engine in a car, one transmission, one light switch that turns on the headlights and turns it off. In an airplane, anything that’s really critical -- pressurization, hydraulics, electrical -- there’s three of them. There’s two major navigation systems plus two more minor navigation systems on-board every airplane. There’s three communication radios. It goes on and on,” Weiss said. 

That’s not to say it’s completely unusual to have a bumpy ride. Experiencing some kind of turbulence is fairly normal. 

“If there’s a lot of turbulence, a lot of movement of air from different directions, it will bounce the airplane around a little bit. I always hear the stories ‘Oh my God, we just dropped 1,000 feet.’ No, you probably dropped [a few] feet, maybe not even that much. Usually, you’re moving around a couple of inches. We don’t even see it on the altimeter when that’s happening,” Weiss said. 

During the class, Weiss said, he also admits to something surprising. 

“I try to let them know that the pilots have fears, too; that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their fear. I tell them that I have a fear of heights on a ladder. I fly airplanes and I’ve flown fighter jets 500 feet off the ground upside down, thinking nothing of it. Yet, get me on a step ladder 4 feet off the ground and I have to grab onto anything I can get my hands on. I’m scared,” Weiss said. “It’s not abnormal to have a fear of some sort. It’s OK.”

Fear of Flying

WHEN: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Albany International Airport, third-floor conference room

COST: $60 

MORE INFO: 518-242-2230

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