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.
"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.
Security procedures also exacerbate the sense of helplessness, according to Wener. He compares the experience to that of a prisoner in jail.
"You have to get in line, do what you're told, and you can't crack a joke because somebody in authority in a uniform may not like that joke and pull you aside," he says. "And you have to take off your shoes, your belt: All of these things are adding to the sense that you are no longer empowered."
And so what to do to reduce stress? Wener says his best advice could have been given by his grandmother: Just leave lots and lots of extra time.
But for some passengers that's not enough – particularly people who react badly to stressful situations, those with extreme fear of flying, and individuals who experience panic attacks.
"I have clients who are afraid they'll be on a plane and feel like they have to get off and try to bolt and end up in handcuffs," says Capt. Tom Bunn of Seminars on Air Anxiety Relief (SOAR) in Easton, Conn. "In this environment where there's concern that anyone who doesn't follow the rules could be a terrorist, sometimes it does end up tragically." He says his clients' greatest concern is that nobody will understand them and help them. At a memorial service for Ms. Gotbaum last week, her husband said that if only "one person had helped her, she would be alive today," according to reports.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says each officer is given hundreds of hours of training, which includes instruction aimed at ensuring situations don't get out of hand. If an officer thinks a situation might, he or she is instructed to call a supervisor, who may then call local airport police.
"Once law enforcement arrives on the scene, if an incident has escalated to that level, they take control of the situation," says TSA spokeswoman Lara Uselding.
The Air Transport Association, which represents the nation's major airlines, says it does not have data "to support the hypothesis that there's an increase in stress" at the nation's airports. The American Association of Airport Executives, which represents airport officials, did not return several calls asking for comment on airport stress.
But aviation experts like Mitchell say the system is at a breaking point.
"We have a system that's become unreliable. It's worse than it's ever been," he says. "We're going to be going from aviation brownouts to blackouts: We're at 750 million passengers, and that number's expected to go up to a billion. Something's got to be done."
Most experts agree it will take years of investment to expand airports and their runways and to upgrade the antiquated air traffic control system – all physical improvements needed to reduce stress-causing delays. In the meantime, Captain Bunn offers some solutions for handling the current airport environment.
"To deal with these anxieties, we tell people there are things that trigger profound calming: Think about a baby being born and when the mother and baby connect," he says. "What we do is ask people to find a memory where they have a profound connection with another person and to associate each aspect of the flight experience with that memory."
In other words, draw on inner resources to take back control and release stress.