How to handle a midair freakout from your fellow passenger

Having a passenger freak out during a flight can rattle the nerves of all on board.

Having a passenger freak out during a flight can rattle the nerves of all on board.  (iStock)

The first scream came about three seconds into the flight.

"Oh my God!” she yelled as our Los Angeles-bound Virgin America flight hooked a left over Jamaica Bay, just west of New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. We turned again, “Ahhhhh!"

I thought the gray-haired woman in front of me was kidding. I looked over the seat to see if someone was tormenting her.


There wasn’t.

I sat back down, and another scream. Gripped by a fear of flying, the woman was now huddled in her window seat, waiting for an impact she thought was coming.

The plane rolled slightly to the right. Another scream.

"Is this your first time on a plane?" asked a man to her right, trying to distract her from the routine takeoff. She removed her headphones. He did his best Dr. Phil impression and said, "When I get scared, I just think there's 10,000 other planes in the sky.”

And, of course, of all those 10,000 flights in the entire world, she was on mine.

I’m no Chuck Yeager. I say a prayer before takeoff, grab my armrest during turbulence and look sternly at someone still gabbing on a cellphone long after the crew says to turn off all electronic equipment. So this woman was rattling me.

A passenger offered to sit next to her, but the woman declined. There was one particularly rocky point during the flight, fittingly over the Rockies, and a flight attendant came over and asked her if everything was OK. Clearly her screams raised suspicions that things were not going as well as the airline's pre-flight safety video make it seem.

"There's a lot of technology and physics working behind this plane," the flight attendant said, which was the first time I heard the word “physics” said through a smile. "Trust me, this turbulence is nothing.”

If this turbulence qualified as nothing, I imagined any worse would require the flight attendant to go into the main cabin's cupboard, move the free cans of soda and $5 headphones to the side, pick up the large-game tranquilizer, load it with two darts and fire one at her and one at me.

The Federal Aviation Administration told me there really is no standard operating procedure to deal with aviatophobia — the fear of flying. Unless a passenger is having a full-blown panic attack that becomes a threat or safety concern, it's the job of the airline to deal accordingly with passengers.

So I called Virgin America.

They told me in an email that their in-flight team is trained to assist those who are afraid of flying. One method they use is to introduce passengers to the pilots, which they say can be calming. Virgin Atlantic (a separate company) even maintains a Fear of Flying program.

Air travel is very safe, but 2014 was not a good year. There were two high-profile air disasters involving Malaysia Airlines, and July was the fifth worst month in aviation history, with 464 deaths, according to the Air Safety Network

A quick Google search for "fear of flying" brings up more options than you can fit in an overhead bin. There are herbal remedies, hypnotherapy treatments and good old-fashioned scotch.

It is hard to say how many people suffer from fear of flying, but a report in Money Magazine said about 25 percent of people surveyed had some fear. Hard-core sufferers of aviatophobia are estimated at around 6 percent.

Tom Bunn, a former PanAm pilot and founder of SOAR, a program that claims to help people overcome their fear of flying in two days, told me that when a passenger panics, he enters his own reality, and it’s important to pull him back into the real world.

"You need to pull them out of their imagination," Bunn said. "Get right in their face, I mean right in their face, and say, 'How many fingers do I have up?’ or ‘What color are my eyes?’ Anything to get them out of their imagination….

"The plane is not going to crash, but even before the plane takes off, these people convince themselves that the plane is doomed," he said.

My flight landed safely at Los Angeles International. The woman was surprisingly quiet during the descent, and once we touched down she began talking for the first time about restaurants she enjoyed in New York City. It was like nothing happened.

I saw her face for the first time, and I made a mental note of it. I plan to keep an eye out for her at any airport for the rest of my life.

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Edmund DeMarche is a news editor for Follow him on Twitter @EDeMarche.