I try to keep it a secret. But, when I’m trapped in a cramped seat at 35,000 feet, and turbulence hits, everybody knows. I guess I should lower my voice a bit more when I start reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Sure, if the weather is good and the flight is smooth, I can actually enjoy it. With my nose pressed to the glass by my window seat, I marvel at the fluffy clouds, clear blue sky, and the crisp contrails of the jet going in the opposite direction — which did miss us by a mile, thanks to air traffic controllers, expert pilots, and TCAS. Phew!
I’ve taken courses for fearful flyers and tried so many of their “solutions” — all to no avail. Counting as I breathe deeply; quietly reciting things I see, feel, and hear; meditation; holding my husband’s hand; or, if, he’s not on the flight, the hand of whoever is lucky to be sitting next to me. I understand that, 99.99% of the time, turbulence is not a danger to the plane, and the plane is not a danger to me. Still, I often can’t relax until I view land below, land which is rising toward us as we approach — there it is — the beautiful runway that will soon release me from this claustrophobic cylinder.
All humor aside, barring major storms (Hail, I’m talking about you), I am able to make it through most flights with a modicum of nonchalance. When I fly to NY, LA, or Chicago, if I have a seatmate in show business (my dream career), I can lose myself in rapt conversation and totally ignore the plane’s roller coaster moves or I can demonstrate my excellent acting skills by appearing unconcerned.
My “day job” as a health professional has also helped me to conquer my phobia a bit. A decade ago, while flying over the mid-Atlantic, I heard the pilot on speaker asking if there was an Arzt on the plane. As an amateur cartoonist, I didn’t feel I could call myself an artist, but — oh — when the pilot repeated his request in English, I realized Arzt meant a physician. I raised my hand and was led to a young woman whose migraine headache was worsening. The flight attendant (FA) brought out a large suitcase filled with medications, whose European brand names were unfortunately unfamiliar. As a pediatrician, I had worked in ERs and practiced with young adults, so I suggested a sedative with a comprehensible generic name. The medication helped the woman blessedly fall asleep for the rest of the trip. I am proud to admit I did not give in to the temptation to sedate myself as well.
Returning to my seat, I was called to assist another passenger, a man in his seventies, who was perspiring, grimacing, and clutching his chest. The drug suitcase came out again, along with a useless stethoscope. (The portable EKGs on our smartphones were not yet available.) I could not hear the man’s delicate heart sounds over the jet’s four loud engines. Our patient’s English was limited and he was unable to provide a helpful medical history or describe his medications, offering us instead several almost-empty pharmacy bottles which lacked identifiable North American or European labels. With few options mid-voyage over the sea, I chose to consult with the airline’s doctor-on-call remotely before I could answer the pilots’ question as to whether we should continue forward or return to Europe.
The flight attendant asked me to follow him and led me to the upper floor of the plane. He knocked and then opened the cockpit door and waved me inside. I gingerly tiptoed in and lowered myself into the empty flight engineer’s seat, terrified that one false move or sneeze would send the jet plummeting into the sea. The pilots reassured me of our safety and handed me headphones to consult with the European doctor. Together, we were quickly able to develop a suitcase plan that allowed the flight to the East Coast to continue and relieve the gentleman’s discomfort and symptoms in a short span. Nevertheless, I chose to take a seat next to our patient and monitor his condition for the rest of the flight. My sense of responsibility overcame my turbulence phobia and I do not recall being aware of rough skies during the rest of our trip.
Upon landing, two ambulances were waiting for our patients at the air-conditioned airport. Our recovered chest pain patient, who likely had only had an angina episode, resisted going to the hospital but was finally convinced to do so to double-check his heart. The young woman, now sans headache, had awakened refreshed and declined an ER visit and strode off the jet. Just as I was ready to exit, I was stopped by the flight attendant.
“Can you help us one more time?” he asked. “Someone just fainted in the back.”
A year later, I was called to duty on the same airline and same route when a flight attendant developed severe abdominal pain. I and a doctor from Russia helped the victim get relief until we could land on the East Coast. Yes, distraction and duty worked to reduce or remove my fears, but predicting which flights might have medical emergencies is not an effective way to overcome flight phobia.
What did work for me, better than most of the other techniques, was the ability to see the land and lights of Mother Earth through my adjacent window, and feel that an emergency landing, if needed, would be easy to arrange. Peeking beyond my cylindrical prison relaxed me, and helped me feel that the pilots had good control of the plane and I had good control of my emotions. Until this summer, when we flew on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to Europe.
I was excited to experience the fresh air and lower altitude of the 787’s cabin. I was also excited to have access to the individually-controlled windows on each side of the plane about which I had read. As a window seat passenger, I typically kept my window shade up throughout every flight, but I labored to be considerate of my neighbors and lower the shade if my seatmate was bothered by the sun’s rays. All I needed to calm my nerves was a tiny slit of glass I could peek through and see the blue sky and green fields. I soon discovered that most passengers around me also enjoyed the remarkable panorama outside. Those who wished to sleep were the lucky souls that effortlessly called on Mr. Sandman right after takeoff, and travelers who put on effective eye masks and noise-canceling headphones to promote sweet dreams until landing was near. My husband’s mask would not even let in a speck of light, and his headphones muffled my occasional prayers.
After the dinner service over Nova Scotia, the flight attendants turned off the cabin lights, and some sated flyers settled in to sleep. Others turned on their individual lights so that they could read a book. Youngsters who dived into their video games seemed to prefer an unlit seat area that did not create glare on their screens. To prevent charging worries, I avoided electronics and opened the cover of a new cozy mystery. I took a peek to my right to check if we had entered the over-ocean stretch of our trip. To my dismay, the window was darkly translucent and I was unable to see outside. I fiddled with the control buttons, then researched in the airline magazine and online to see how I could clear the window — with no success.
I buzzed for the flight attendant, who responded with a forced smile: “Too bad, your window must be broken.”
“But I had seen out of it before takeoff,” I protested, as she walked away.
It was only when I went to the restroom that I realized that ALL of the windows were closed. No amount of gentle pleading could get the flight attendants to admit the window controls were functioning, and I returned to my seat with growing anxiety. The firm comment: “We called it in.” For the next 7 hours I sat stiffly in my seat, feeling trapped and ever more anxious. Stormy weather over the Atlantic and Western Europe had me and a few other passengers vocalizing, and I retreated back to repeating the Lord’s Prayer in three languages to get me through.
The window controls somehow magically began operating again when we neared landing in Europe. My rested husband awoke and asked me if I had slept well overnight, too. Ha! Not a wink, dear.
I resolved never again to fly on a 787 or any other jet with similar electronic windows. My fear of flying had returned in spades. While doomscrolling a few days later, I happened to catch a surprising — or not — article on the Simple Flying blog. https://simpleflying.com/american-dreamliner-windows/ Aha! Apparently, crews forcing electronic windows to remain closed during flights was so widespread that American Airlines sent a policy memo against the practice. And another a year later.
So the crew of our airline (not American Airlines) did lock the window controls on purpose. I checked with a pilot friend and found that the “It’s broken” excuse was commonly given to support passengers who wanted to sleep and play video games or read online. I don’t buy it, especially with night flights, where a starry sky or a lit metropolis would not be bright enough to wake another passenger. With a good mask and noise-cancelling headphones there should be no noise and no light, even in daytime.
Readers, I’m sure you can make a sacrifice to help frightened flyers by reading a printed book or a traditional Kindle so the shades can stay up and the windows transparent. And, for kids, what a great opportunity to watch a movie or avoid screens entirely and, like your parents, read a book! (The Bartimaeus series by Jonathan Stroud is even better than Harry Potter.) Trust me, your online games will still be there after we land.
Quora, Reddit, and other online sites have commenters complaining as I do about shuttered windows, because we are all missing an amazing experience. It’s not only about calming turbulence terror, it’s about the miracle of flight. When a remarkable sunset or sunrise peeks over the horizon or a snowcapped mountain drills through the cotton clouds, I think how much a Leonardo Da Vinci or Wilbur Wright would have enjoyed the privilege of flying today. The crews on 787’s, unfortunately, are likely bored with the scenery and just want to get through their shifts. The flight attendants turn off the lights and lock the windows so people will go to sleep and not bother them. Fewer annoying passenger encounters lead to more “break” time.
I do understand that flight attendants feel overworked and underpaid. I agree with the latter. FAs should be paid higher salaries. And they should be paid from the time that they arrive on duty, not only after the airplane doors have closed. Their salary should also cover the hour it takes to deboard a plane completely, even if it means a few more dollars added to ticket prices. But, while on duty up to 10–12 hours, FAs should work under the same standards most of us do, i.e. 15 minute breaks every 3–4 hours and meal breaks every 6 hours for 30 minutes. FAs should not be able to “go hide” in their sleep areas during shifts of 10 hours or less and remain unavailable to passengers and their needs.
This expectation of “extended time off” during a shift has become contagious and upsetting. We recently flew from one coast to another during the day on an old 777–200 without electronic windows, yet experienced a similar challenge. Due to airport chaos and flight cancellations, we were unable to get window seats for our 6 hour flight. Planning to peek over neighbors’ laps at the blue skies, I bit the bullet after takeoff and lunch when the cabin lights were turned off and many passengers manually pulled down their shades. Those who didn’t do so were row by row urged to comply by a terse FA. For the next 4 hours, the beautiful views of our majestic homeland were hidden behind layers of beige stained plastic…just so there would be no glare on video games. Uh, huh. Good call.
Worse, this flight did not require everyone to raise their shades in preparation for landing, as is the law at European airports, so, for the first time in my life, I experienced a “blind landing”, unable to see the airport or the runway. As the flight ended, I sat in a dim cabin, gripping my seat, clenching my eyes, waiting for the “bump” of the tires hitting the asphalt. Another resolution for 2024, no more flights without a window seat. Whose shade I can raise.
Unfortunately, Boeing is spreading the 787 electronic window infection to new 777Xs. Airbus’ A 220s and Embraer’s new E2 will also have these expensive windows. I strongly suggest staying with the traditional shades and using the savings to pay FAs a higher wage.
If this window trend continues, we may even see cuts in FA staffing and services during long flights when passengers are being “mandated” to sleep. Moreover, we may no longer have the ability to enjoy airplanes’ miraculous portals to a universe of wonder outside the cabin at 33,000 feet, because it’s too much to ask fellow flyers to buy and wear an eye-mask or read a paper book. We fearful flyers and nature lovers need to make our voices heard now, before the plague of electronic windows and their manipulation by FAs lead to the end of Glorious Awe.