Travelers conquer their fears of flying at airport program
Published: Nov 20, 2012
Written by Theresa Juva-Brown

Chris Bruno's panic problem began before he ever stepped foot on a plane. As a boy growing up in Yonkers, Bruno worried that if he didn't sit on a certain side of the school bus, it would tip over. When he flew on a plane for the first time as an adult, it brought his fear of losing control to new heights — literally.

"I always had this anxiety about being up in the air. It doesn't seem natural to me," said the 62-year-old lawyer who lives in Cortlandt. "It's a feeling like if you walk along a cliff, and you look over, and there is no fence."

After struggling for years with consuming dread before and during every flight, Bruno joined Freedom to Fly, a program at Westchester County Airport led by Martin Seif, a renowned clinical psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center at White Plains Hospital.

Seif, a former fearful flier himself, has been running the program at the airport for more than a decade. He generally holds it twice a year.

"There are a huge number of people afraid of flying, and people who severely curtail their lives because of the fear of flying," Seif said. "At the basis of all anxiety disorders is the fear that you can't handle the fear. The other component is that the fear of flying is a confluence of a lot of different fears," such as heights, enclosed spaces and catastrophic events.

Because the program addresses mental health, some health insurance plans will cover part of the cost, Seif said.

During the recent six-week course, 20 nervous travelers gathered to face their fear of flying and the nerve-racking steps leading up to it.

In addition to individual meetings with phobia counselors and weekly group talks, members practiced going through security and sitting on a plane.

Romero Iral, assistant federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration at the airport, said those exercises help his officers learn how to deal with scared passengers. It can also ease the nerves of fearful travelers.

"They see the degree of security that occurs, and so when they go through the screening process they say, 'It's not going to be possible to get through with a weapon or without ID.' That gives them peace of mind," Iral said.

At the end of the program, members tested their new coping skills on a "graduation flight" from La Guardia Airport to Washington.

James Wendel, a 47-year-old financial analyst from Newburgh, never had a problem flying until about six years ago, when he had four flights in a row with severe turbulence.

He was so nervous about the graduation flight on Nov. 10 that he almost got off the plane before takeoff.

"You walked to the front, and I said, 'Look, you can leave or you can go back to your seat — it's up to you,'" Seif recalled, addressing Wendel, at the group's final meeting on Nov. 13.

Wendel stayed.

"That was the first time I had flown in six years without taking two or three milligrams of Xanax and a quarter bottle of vodka on top of it," Wendel told the group. His phobia counselor kept him busy by having him write countdowns on a piece of paper.

The graduation flight was the first time Diana Wolf, a mother of three from Upper Saddle River, N.J., had been on a plane in more than 10 years. Ironically, her husband is an aircraft mechanic.

"I honestly never thought I would fly again," she told the group. "It would be torture before I traveled. I thought, 'Why am I planning a vacation if for like a month before I will be sick?' I would see airplanes, and I would imagine them blowing up.

" Wolf said she believes her fear began when a girl on her block was killed in the Pan Am bombing in 1988 near Lockerbie, Scotland.

Despite some initial anxiety, Wolf said, she was surprisingly comfortable on the graduation flight.

The course taught her to "be comfortable knowing that there are going to be moments I may have the anxiety," she said. "But now I'll be able to plan a trip. Before I could not, would not, plan a trip.

" Bruno, the fearful flier from Cortlandt, remembered Seif's suggestion to rate his anxiety when he grew nervous during takeoff.

"I started to panic, and I started to put a number on it, instead of going off on a tangent worrying about whether the mechanic put in all the screws," Bruno said.

It worked.

After the successful flight, many in the group said they plan to take more together; some have already booked a trip to Chicago next month.

Seif had one more reminder for his students as their final session ended: "Send us postcards from various parts of the world."