Exposure to stationary aircraft – methods and issues

There’s an 8-part television show, Ready for Take-off,  which has just finished its season in Australia which gives us a behind-the scenes look at the operation of Qantas Airways across many of its airports internationally, including Heathrow, Dubai, Sydney and Melbourne.

(Please note: It’s Qantas not Quantas, and Airways, not Airlines.)

Channel 9's new reality TV show, a behind the scenes look at QANTAS
Channel 9’s new reality TV show, a behind the scenes look at QANTAS

We get to see many of the incidents that confront a 24/7/365 business which is highly dependent on human beings functioning at their peak, the vagaries of weather, and sophisticated mechanical objects with the capacity to mysteriously stop functioning. I have interacted with a few of the people we see on the show, mainly Customer Experience Managers. who used to be called Airport Duty Managers. They are the Captains of the airline’s operations at each airport and must co-ordinate information from many different sources and be sure a flight is safe to leave for its destination with perhaps almost 500 passengers on board.

It’s these people, plus those at the next level down that I interact with to get my patients onboard stationary aircraft as part of our exposure work. (I also have an Australian Government Aviation security clearance to assist this process, known as an ASIC. I occasionally also get patients on board international airlines in the weeks before they fly with them.)

When I ran the Ansett fear of flying program between 1994-2000 in Melbourne, each night over the five week course we would spend some time on an aircraft – one night it could be a 737, another night an A320 and another night it could be a 767. We would also do a walkaround with a pilot on the tarmac who would show the group what he accomplished in a walkaround, the routine each pilot does before each flight. This was about exposure to safety protocols, while being onboard each week was more about exposure to the group members’ own thoughts, feelings and sensations.

On most nights we did this, the sub-group who feared this exposure the most (and thus got the most benefit from the weekly visits) were the claustrophobics as well as those who had either never flown, or for whom many years had elapsed since their last flight and so their memories needed some reality testing.

There are lots of YouTube videos and emerging 360° videos which can inform you of what it’s “like” to be on board a plane. But of course such triggers are only using two senses – hearing and sight – to expose the viewer to their fears situation. For some, that might be enough. But in my experience, we sometimes need more “oomph” to make the exposure session worth the time and effort. This is where the visit to the airport make sense.

Sometimes, the airport visit happens on its own, so I usually encourage patients to “do the airport” pickup so feared by many in TV sitcoms where it’s also seen as doing a “solid” as New Yorkers would call it, given how difficult it can be. See this quote from The Seinfeld Dictionary:

The dreaded Airport Pickup, satirised by Seinfled
The dreaded Airport Pickup, satirised by Seinfled

With airport security being the way it is in 2015, it’s getting harder to any more than do a drop-off or pickup outside the terminal. In most Australian domestic terminals, you can still go through security to the Gate and see friends off or welcome family back as they walk off their plane through the jetway. In the US, this is almost impossible unless you’re visiting a provincial airport. That’s something of a pity for a generation who will miss out on the “just off the plane” hug and greeting. Now, the family perhaps circles in the car while one family members heads to the luggage  carousels to meet and greet, then use the cellphone to co-ordinate the pick up.

Still, here in Melbourne where I work, it’s possible to bring patients onto stationary aircraft under special arrangements with airlines and airport management. Because I’ve been doing this a long time, I’m known to many of the Duty staff. When I ring to co-ordinate a visit my cellphone caller ID is recognised by the duty cellphone in many cases, and this smooths the way.

Last weekend, before the Christmas hectic season really began, I was able to get two patients on board the same Boeing 737, one after the other (Confidentiality reasons  prevents a combined session). On this particular day, we had both advantages and disadvantages confronting us.

On the positive side, things in the middle of the day were quiet, and we had access to the aircraft at Gate 2 for more than an hour. This is what it used to be like a few years ago when Qantas ran a fleet of 767s wide-bodies. But since their retirement, the airline has more heavily relied on its 737 fleet. Because their capacity is much less, they now fly more often and so have less time on the ground between flights (“turnaround time”). So getting an hour on board is more a rarity than the norm now. And we also had a member of the customer service team stay with us to assist.

The downside was the aircraft had been baking in the warm Melbourne sun for most of the morning, and both it and the jetway were unairconditioned. So as soon as the patient and I left the terminal and entered the jetway, we were hit with a blast of hot air which continued on board the aircraft. We all began sweating generously.

This was actually a positive, as it allowed me to explain to the patient that sometimes their breaking out into a sweat can be due to heat in the aircraft, and not due to their fear response being triggered. It also allowed me to guide my patient not to race on board, but to pause, gather their composure and plan their movements in a more controlled manner. Once on board the first patient – who had never flown – was able to have a reality check against what he thought being on board would be like. His only information about what to expect had come from movies or YouTube videos (as well as a previous stint in my Virtual Reality cabin environment).

The patient was quite surprised at the paucity of legroom, and so determined that when he flew he would endeavour to choose a seat with more room, even if it meant paying a premium price. I usually assist patients with this process as part of my work with them. Ultimately, this first patient rated the visit as a most worthwhile exercise.

My second patient was already waiting at Gate 1 when I arrived there and once more with the assistance of Qantas staff, we boarded the same aircraft – still very warm – with me issuing a warning as to what to expect, heat-wise.

This was well-accepted and once more I explained about keeping one’s composure during the transition from landslide to airside. Once on board however, something unusual occurred, which I hadn’t planned for but took advantage of.

This particular patient had flown eight years earlier, then stopped flying after a particularly turbulent flight. He was due to fly again next year for a very special purpose. I had already worked with him regarding strategies for managing turbulence, and the task this day was to practice those tactics on a real aircraft.

But on this warm Melbourne day, with a strong Northerly wind picking up in strength, it began to rock the 737 we were on. Wings on modern commercial airliners are very efficient lift devices, and so if the wind hits the side of the aircraft, the fuselage acts like a sail and the wing into the wind creates lift even if the engines are off and the aircraft is not in motion. So the result is an aircraft that “dances” on its undercarriage, rocking from side to side, and giving a very good simulation of the mild “chop” of an aircraft inflight.

This proved to be a challenge for the patient who felt his old urges to grip the seat and hold his breath, kick in. Once he began practising what he had learnt in the office sessions, and noticed how he could modulate his arousal, the task was to have him walk the length of the plane, holding the seats or the overhead bins to stabilise himself. This was a major breakthrough. Part of him knew the plane was not in the air, but another part was sorely tempted to believe so. For him to overcome his first impulse to sit and grip (or in this case, leave the aircraft) was a very important achievement.

Once more, when we left the aircraft, the patient offered that this was a really useful experience. Asked to expand, he commented that his other recent visits (to drop off family) had been one of rushing in and out of the airport to minimise his exposure. But on this occasion, it was all about his own therapeutic efforts to overcome his fear in service of a very important life event in 2016. He spoke of learning a lot about the aircraft experience and how he could manage it, to some extent brought about by reality testing and re-aligning his incorrect expectations based on past – somewhat exaggerated – memories.

And the final bonus goes to the Qantas staff who had a chance to listen to how I worked which I’m sure they will put to good use in their work as Customer Experience agents.


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