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Advice on avoiding airport stress: Leave time

Long security lines and flight delays have boosted flier angst.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2007

New York

Kevin Mitchell's heart was pounding at the Philadelphia International Airport. The security line was so long that he worried either he'd miss his flight or they'd give his seat away if he didn't make it to the gate 15 minutes before departure. Ultimately, Mr. Mitchell got there six minutes before his 7 a.m. flight, and his seat was safe.

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"But I'm on the plane at 7 in the morning already stressed, before the day even started," says Mitchell, a veteran airline traveler as chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.

There's little doubt that US airports are settings for high-tension drama. Security lines are long, 30 percent of all flights are now late, and planes are jampacked. But experts say stress can be coped with. And being prepared – and leaving extra time – can help.

A recent study of stress done at London's Heathrow Airport found that average travelers there had "higher stress levels than fighter pilots, Formula 1 racing drivers, parachutists, and riot police," according to researcher David Lewis. He insists those findings are not alarmist, in part, because race-car drivers have been trained to handle stress.

"They've been trained to deal with this increase in adrenaline and heart rate as part of their acceleration, keying them up to perform well," says Dr. Lewis. "Where as passengers … well, no."

In some cases, the consequences of such a high-stress environment can be devastating. In the past three weeks, two distraught passengers died in airport police custody. Early Sunday morning, an arriving passenger at the Vancouver International Airport who apparently didn't speak English began acting erratically, yelling and pounding on windows. He also threw a computer off a desk. Police used a Taser gun to subdue him, and he died shortly after paramedics arrived.

On Sept. 28, New Yorker Carol Anne Gotbaum, a mother on her way to alcohol rehabilitation, missed her connecting flight at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. She lost her cool and ended up strangled in the handcuffs put on her by local airport police.

Both incidents are under investigation. Although they are extreme examples, experts say the high stress levels that often accompany preboarding moments can be challenging for even veteran travelers like Mitchell. Experts also say it's important to understand causes of stress, so passengers can learn how to deal with it. Two of the biggest causes, they say, are unpredictability and lack of a sense of control.

"At the airports today, there are a lot of things that reduce both predictability and a sense of control," says Richard Wener, an environmental psychologist at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn.

Such factors include late planes that increase the chances of missing a connection, as well as long security lines, which can cause passengers to miss a flight. Prior to 9/11, Professor Wener notes, travelers could get to the airport 15 minutes before their flight and make a "mad dash" for the gate. So they had a certain amount of control over the situation: They could "dash." Today, passengers can arrive a full hour early and still almost miss their plane because of the long check-in and security lines. And there's nothing to do but wait.