Fear of Dying While Flying

Most people aren't crazy about flying. The fear of dying while flying was around long before 9/11-at least one American Airlines victim bought terrorism insurance. But in the past six years, this fear has kicked into high gear. The death of airline passenger Carol Ann Gotbaum at the Phoenix airport last Friday night is a reminder that fear of dying while flying has a life of its own.

Carol Ann Gotbaum is the 45-year old woman who was found dead in an airport holding cell at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport after being arrested on a disorderly conduct charge approximately an hour before. According to my interview with Sgt. Joe Tranter of the airport police, witnesses told officers that Gotbaum had been "yelling and screaming and running through the terminal." Airport workers told the New York Daily News that Gotbaum was running around hollering, "I'm not a terrorist! I'm a sick mom! I need help!"

So, how did Gotbaum die? Since there's no toxicology report yet, it's too early to say. But while readers all over the web, and specifically at USAToday.com, speculate that Gotbaum was killed by an aggressive airport police force indicative of America-the-police-state, I'd argue that the results of a recent experiment conducted at Heathrow Airport is a more practical place to begin.

Last July, neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis monitored passengers' heart rates as they went through airport check-in and security procedures at England's busiest airport. Dr. Lewis concluded that some passengers experienced such intense stress levels-before they got on the plane-that their heart rates exceed levels "recorded by Formula 1 drivers, free-fall parachutists, and victims of knife-point muggings."

Dr. Lewis' conclusion? Airport passengers are under so much psychological stress as they anticipate flying, they could be at risk of death. "The conditions at Heathrow Airport and the stress levels that passengers are routinely subject to poses a very grave danger to the health of travelers at the airport," Lewis said. The doctor also monitored passengers as they flew from Amsterdam to London and discovered that fliers' heart rates and blood pressure exceeded those of "riot policemen confronting a stone throwing mob."

Here's the fascinating part: The analysis of Dr. Lewis' study by Silverjet luxury airlines (who commissioned the study) laid blame on airport "queues, unfriendly and impatient staff, lack of information, burly security and inadequate facilities." But wait! What about the terrorists? People's heart rates don't mimic that of a policeman confronting a rock-hurling mob because an airport employee left his or her Build-a-Bear personality at home. People's heart rates skyrocket because they are experiencing the fear of dying while flying. That translates to fear of terrorist, not fear of unfriendly airport employee.

Let's be clear about who the boogeyman is at airports. It's not the beefy security guards, nor is it the airport police. The bad guy is the Islamic terrorist who has his or her heart set on taking out another group of planes. It's the Islamic terrorist who, according to National Counterterrorism Director John Scott Redd, is plotting something, "not unlike the U.K. aviation threat last year." Passengers know this-it's not "lack of information" that makes the heart go thump in the chest. And none of this means any of us should refuse to fly. What it means is that it's time for anyone who wants to, to admit their fear of dying while flying without being called a racist, a coward or a xenophobe.

Three years ago, I unwittingly made a public name for myself expressing my fear and outrage over the behavior of 13 mala fide Syrians-posing as musicians and acting like terrorists-who were traveling alongside me and my family on a Northwest Airlines cross-country flight. The White House Homeland Security Council ordered a federal investigation of what happened on the flight; the results verified my account. That took three years. But in the meantime, I hardly felt it necessary to pretend I wasn't afraid. On that flight, my heart rate mimicked that of a Formula One driver, a mugging victim, and a parachutist in a free-fall. And sometimes, when I'm in airports today, my heart rate rises again. This has nothing to do with long lines, unfriendly staff, burly security or men in blue. It's the sometime-experience of fear of dying while flying. I have it, others have-you might have it too.

Don't blame the police. Face the facts about the terrorists.

Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, %%AMAZON=1890626627 Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again%%.