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Fearful Flyers

Some CEOs can’t wing it in planes. But courtesy of two airline companies, there’s hope for those who seek to cope.

Call it an executive’s personal business nightmare. Imagine you just received a phone call. Your best client wants you to fly back and sign the biggest contract you’ve ever had. There’s only one problem: You’re afraid to fly.

In fact, the idea of stepping on a plane makes you break out in a cold sweat. Just a bad dream? Unfortunately for many executives, the scenario is a nightmare they live every day. Terror holds the mind hostage as frightening sensations ripple through the body.

“I would experience a rapid heart beat and a general sense of wanting to crawl literally out of my skin,” recalls Woody Tanger, president and CEO of Boston-based Marlin Broadcasting. “The feeling would start building at the very thought of getting on an airplane.”

But there’s hope for those who seek to cope. Programs offered by American Airlines, USAir and other organizations are helping flyers face their fears. Using behavior modification, relaxation and anxiety-reduction techniques, counselors help executives to break the cycle of panic. Graduation usually entails a round-trip flight.

“I’m a born-again advocate of the American Airlines program,” says William Ernisse, senior vice president with Stamford, CT-based Xerox. “It was a great investment.”

Round-trip business jaunts can be particularly traumatic for chief executives who prefer to keep their feet on the ground. Tania Wisbar’s fear of flying hit in 1979 during a flight to Boston where she was to give a keynote address at a conference. “It was horrible,” says the president and CEO of the Imperial Beach Times, a publishing company based near San Diego. “I thought I might have to buy a house there and never leave. I eventually took the train back.” Later, a necessary trip to Germany proved even more stressful. During the flight, Wisbar’s anxiety intensified so much that she threw herself to the floor and started chewing the carpet.

Some CEOs can fly anxiety-free for years before suddenly experiencing paralyzing fear at the sight of an airplane. Ernisse of Xerox, a former sky diver, used to free-fall out of planes flying at 10,000 feet. “It was nothing but a rush,” the 42-year-old manager says. “But then, in 1985, I developed this fear of flying. For the next two years, the fear started by just looking at the tickets.”

To calm himself down Ernisse “would drink two quick glasses of white wine before getting on board, then a couple of glasses on the plane.” Then a doctor gave him a relaxant prescription. He took the pills-with a glass of wine.

Jim Frye, chairman and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Fornello USA, Inc., owner and operator of more than 300 Italian Oven restaurants, had been a frequent flyer until 1991 when he panicked while on an amusement park “dark” ride. When he and his family tried to fly home after that fateful vacation, Frye panicked and ran off the plane.

“I left my children and wife on the plane. Later, I had to get medicated in order to get home,” he says. “My fear wasn’t necessarily a fear of flying. I don’t mind airplanes. But I was afraid that when the door closed, and the plane moved away from the hoarding gate, that I was in my tomb, and that I was going to have a heart attack and die.”

Frye, Ernisse, Wisbar, and Tanger are not alone in their experience. A Boeing study conducted in the 1980s suggests over 25 million Americans may fear flying. Many people joke about the white-knuckled flyer, but for an upwardly mobile executive, being able to walk on a plane sometimes can mean the difference between promotion or isolation.

Tanger remembers the impact his fear had on his business. “I own a group of classical music radio stations in Miami, Detroit and Philadelphia,” says the CEO, who works out of his headquarters in Boston. “I used to do a tremendous amount of flying. Then came the anxiety. I would either have to take a car or a train. I was always where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be. It just took a lot longer for me.”

Wisbar’s fears meant there were parts of her company operations she wouldn’t visit. “I have an office I didn’t go to for three years. Let me tell you, it didn’t help my business a whole lot.”

Ernisse says that, for a while, Xerox had to send someone with him in case he panicked or started to get, well, nervous. That obviously was expensive for Xerox, Ernisse adds, and he began to feel pressured by the situation. He would have to arrive at least a day before a scheduled meeting so his anxiety could fade enough for him to function as an executive.

Frye, 41, recalls that for almost a year, he couldn’t travel to many parts of his franchise restaurant operations. By the end of this year, he’ll have franchises in 16 states. “I couldn’t go to any of the out-of-town meetings. But I had people who expected me to show up, because they wanted to meet the founder of this company, the person who developed the concept, and I wasn’t there. That hurt.”

However, besides the common bond of flying fear, these four executives share something else: They learned to overcome their fears through programs designed to help executives and others get back on a plane.

Tanger, Wisbar and Ernisse attended AAirBorn, a two-day seminar sponsored by American Airlines, and designed to help flyers deal with their fears. Frye learned to control his terror through the seven-week Fearful Flyer Program, offered by USAir.

The International Organization of Women Pilots sponsors Fear of Flying Clinics in Seattle, where Alaska Airlines provides commercial planes and employees to conduct the sessions.

American Airlines and USAir offer the most complete program packages in the industry. A commercial jet airplane is used as the learning lab, while a pilot and flight attendant work alongside trained counselors. Group support and experience sharing make the ordeal easier. Goals include identifying the normal noises an airplane makes during flight.

Tanger completed the class, but did not take a graduation flight. “I came close,” he says. But his work paid off: When the time came to take an urgent business trip, Tanger was able to board the plane. He used the skills he learned to get through the flight. “I went to another class, held in New York, and I’ve been flying ever since,” he says. “It has made my life so much easier and richer.”

After participating in the Fearful Flyer program, Ernisse found he had a specific-and easily isolated-problem with flying. On the first day of the class, everyone did a breathing exercise. “I found that my average number of breaths per minute was around 19, while the average human takes 10 to 12,” the executive explains.

The American Airlines team of Sandra Brown, a nationally certified counselor, and Dr. Duane Brown, professor of counseling and counseling psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that Ernisse was breathing too rapidly. He would begin hyperventilating, which causes more anxiety.

“It was like a light bulb going on for me,” Ernisse says. “The Browns gave me some relaxation techniques-tensing your muscles and then relaxing-and since then it’s been marvelous.”

Ernisse’s problem is somewhat unusual. Of the 22 people in his class, he says, more than half simply had a fear of the airplane. Most programs address this fear with knowledge. A careful explanation of why an airplane stays in the air, and a review of the mechanics of flying seem to help most people through their fears. At least it did for Wisbar. “I think that fear for me boils down to a loss of control and also a fear of dying. And, of course, you give up control when you enter an airplane.”

The odd thing, Wisbar adds, is that it seems people who have these irrational fears do respond positively when they are walked through all the noises, procedures and basics.

Carol Stauffer, a psychiatric social worker who founded USAir’s program in 1975, arranges fear into four main categories: fear of having no control, fear of closed spaces, fear of heights, and fear of dying. Her first response to participants’ fears is: You can’t be tense and relaxed at the same time. “That also means you can’t be panicky and relaxed at the same time,” she says. “So through relaxation training, a person can teach his or her body a new response to the airplane.”

The willingness of people with flying problems to attend flight sensitivity programs seems to be on the rise. American Airlines held some 40 seminars in 18 cities this year. Stauffer and USAir now offer seminars in 10 cities.

Despite the success of such seminars, the Browns and Stauffer stress that their programs are not a cure. They simply focus on managing the stress with information, positive thought and relaxation techniques.

If these programs are so good, should a company mandate an employee to attend? No, say most executives. “We’ve had people who come into the class very angry that their companies have sent them,” says Sandra Brown. “They are not there for themselves. They are there under duress.”

Ernisse concurs. “I would not make it mandatory,” he says. “But I would suggest a corporation’s employee assistance program offer reimbursement to those who participate in the program.”

Tanger also suggests the CEO should take the lead and let his or her people know management stands behind them. “There should be no stigma at all attached to it,” he says. “A wise CEO will ascertain that a person has the problem and help solve it. He must get involved.”


Contributing editor Michael T. Harris, formerly editor of California Business magazine, and a senior editor with Investor’s Business Daily, has been writing about business and finance for more than 20 years.

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