El Al pilot lends experience to aerophobia program

El Al pilot Michael Katz spent five years developing his program to treat fear of flying, which he offers in Israel and abroad.An El Al pilot offers a how-to course for those who dread getting on an airplane.Geula Speertus, a …

El Al pilot Michael Katz spent five years developing his program to treat fear of flying, which he offers in Israel and abroad.An El Al pilot offers a how-to course for those who dread getting on an airplane.

Geula Speertus, a teacher from Eilat, Israel, had flown to Tel Aviv many times to attend professional training sessions. But the flight she took in the summer of 1970 was different from all others.

From the start Speertus didn’t feel well. Her muscles tensed up. Her heart started to pound. She couldn’t breathe. “I felt I just had to get off that plane. A deep inner fear gripped me. I knew that no one on that flight could help me, and I lost all hope.” At the end of the flight, Speertus swore she’d never fly again.

And she didn’t – for 27 years.

Speertus was suffering from fear of flying – or aeroanxiety – a condition that affects as many as 40 percent of Americans and Europeans to one degree or another, experts say.

Since Sept. 11, fear of flying isn’t just an anxious thought crossing many people’s minds. Those who have the condition are either so paralyzed they stop flying entirely, as Speertus did, or, as is more often the case, they continue flying but suffer intensely on each flight.

Aeroanxiety affects a cross-section of people from all walks of life: men and women, young and old, professionals and non-professionals alike. Anybody can suffer from it. What’s more, the onset can be sudden, turning a veteran fearless flier into a panicky passenger overnight.

The specific fear associated with flying is not the same for every aerophobic individual. For some, it’s a fear of heights. For others, it’s fear of being over the water or fear of the plane crashing.

Capt. Michael (Miki) Katz, an El Al pilot, was astonished to discover the level of fear among some passengers. He became so intrigued by the phenomenon he began to study it, and eventually founded Flight Without Fear seminars, a program for overcoming aeroanxiety.

Katz recalls numerous cases in which flight attendants informed him a passenger was insisting on getting off the plane. “Sometimes you’ll have someone who holds onto the flight attendant, who then calls me to say she can’t serve anyone else because this one passenger won’t let go of her arm,” he said.

On several such occasions, Katz has left the plane in the control of a co-pilot, and emerged from the cockpit to see what was going on. “I was curious and hoped to be able to help. I couldn’t believe what I saw. In a typical case, I would sit down next to a nice, normal-looking businessman, and find that here I am enjoying every second of the flight, while he is convinced that he is going to die any minute.”

The condition can cause general havoc, as in cases in which passengers manage to fly to a destination but are too petrified to fly home. Katz says he has dealt with several such “stranded passengers,” including a German tourist here and an Israeli in New York who were stuck abroad for as long as eight weeks because they were too afraid to get on a return flight. Katz notes airlines will not knowingly divert a plane just because a passenger “wants to get off.” But he suspects this may occasionally happen inadvertently.

“If a passenger has a heart attack, and a doctor who examines the person determines we should land the plane, we do. But if the doctor doesn’t know that passenger is afraid of flying, the doctor may mistake the panic attack for a heart attack. The symptoms are virtually identical. I assume we have been forced to land some flights not because of real heart attacks, but due to panic attacks,” said Katz, who is writing a doctoral thesis on fear of flying.

It is partly for that reason that El Al has begun training its flight crews to cope with passengers with aeroanxiety. “A cabin attendant can’t cure a passenger suffering from fear of flying. But at least he or she can help that person cope,” said Katz, who developed the training program being implemented gradually at the airline. “The idea is for flight attendants to be able to identify such people and learn to reassure them that they are indeed safe.”

Katz, an affable man in his 50s, has been an El Al pilot since 1977. He spent five years researching and developing a model for treating fear of flying, and has been giving his daylong seminars for the last four years. He works privately, or with small or large groups, in both Hebrew and English. Some of his clients live abroad; he treats them during stopovers.

During the seminar, Katz covers a variety of topics, including turbulence and other phenomena, flight-crew training, security measures, and how to relate to media reports of air disasters. Most importantly, he allows time for questions. “People who are afraid of flying have hundreds of questions: What happens if the pilot falls asleep? What if you lose an engine? Why did TWA flight 800 crash? You answer 100 questions, and they come up with another 50. You answer those 50, they have another dozen.”

For first-time fliers, Katz offers a tour of a stationary airplane, and in certain cases will resort to flight simulators. Clients who are jittery even after the seminar are encouraged to schedule their first outing on an El Al flight he is piloting. “I don’t sit there and hold their hand, but just the fact that I’m the captain gives them a certain sense of security,” he said.

His clients include a number of diplomats and many pilots’ wives. “Most pilots can’t relate to this fear. They tell their wives: ‘Flying is nothing; believe me. You don’t need to worry.’ That sort of patronizing attitude doesn’t go very far,” he said.

Katz remains on call for clients long after the workshop is over, taking calls for months and even years, if necessary. He claims a high rate of success, but doesn’t pretend everyone can be helped. If fear of flying used to be the somewhat exotic phobia of a frantic few, since Sept. 11 it’s become a sentiment shared by many, particularly in the United States.

Most airlines report a substantial decline in the number of passengers, compared with previous years. In the United States, demand for programs specializing in fear of flying has, perhaps surprisingly, fallen to an all-time low.

Northwest Airlines was forced to cancel most of its fear-of-flying seminars scheduled for the last quarter of 2001. Experts say that the truly phobic are just too scared to even seek help now.

In contrast, Katz said that in Israel, where the public is much more experienced in dealing with security threats, “we’re not seeing a significant increase in the number of people who are afraid to fly. But the ones who were anxious to begin with have become more afraid now.”