Image: Security in Seattle
Elaine Thompson  /  AP file
A jittery blend of airborne vigilantism, the eight-year wear of security-line stare downs and the Christmas confirmation that our protectors are not fully protecting us seems to have stoked a fresh outbreak of the mile-high heebie-jeebies.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/14/2010 5:53:09 PM ET 2010-01-14T22:53:09

Never “an alarmist” and “always practical” about flying in an age of terrorism, Betsy Hurner nestled nervously into seat 9F last Thursday night as her Northwest Airlines jet prepared to depart Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Minutes earlier, Hurner had gazed at a gate TV as President Obama listed the “systemic failures” that allowed a known anti-American threat to board a Christmas flight bound for that same airport. In her hands, she clutched a Time magazine detailing how the Nigerian man allegedly tried to ignite an underwear bomb, only to be thwarted by a fellow passenger.

“I found myself looking around at the other passengers, evaluating not only if people were security threats, but also if my fellow passengers were on guard,” said Hurner, a corporate marketing manager from Memphis. “What if the person sitting next to the Christmas Day terrorist had been too busy on his laptop to notice? ... Knowing you have a certain amount of control over your own safety almost adds to the stress of a flight.

“I feel a certain amount of responsibility to keep my eyes and ears open. There’s no more sitting back and enjoying the ride.”

A jittery blend of airborne vigilantism, the eight-year wear of security-line stare downs and the Christmas confirmation that our protectors are not fully protecting us seems to have stoked a fresh outbreak of the mile-high heebie-jeebies.

For some travelers, it’s not “fight or flight.” It is flight and fight. Consider:

  • On Wednesday, a Dutch passenger made false bomb threats during an Amsterdam-to-Aruba flight. The ArkeFly jet, carrying 235 people, diverted to Ireland.
  • The day after Hurner’s Jan. 7 trip, a San Francisco-bound AirTran Airways plane was diverted to Colorado with a military F-16 escort after a combative passenger locked himself in the jet’s bathroom.
  • That same Friday, a Hawaiian Airlines flight headed to the Aloha State returned to Las Vegas after a man allegedly harassed another passenger.
  • On Jan. 7, a passenger on a Detroit-bound jet was arrested for disorderly conduct, among other charges, after yelling “I want to kill all the jews.”
  • On Jan. 5, NORAD scrambled two F-15s to escort a Hawaii-bound jet back to Portland, Ore. after a passenger onboard became disruptive.

“The national psyche has indeed become more fearful ... Anxiety is up,” said Michael Brein, a Washington state-based mental health expert who bills himself as the “Travel Psychologist.” Near misses like the undetonated underwear bomb “are wake-up calls that snap us to attention that the traveling world can be a dangerous place ... Some of us handle it well; some of us, not so well. And others — a price we seem to have to pay, are willing to pay — are those copy-cat air rages that seem to be on the increase.”

Frightened fliers
Numerically, how high is our present air angst? During interviews, frequent passengers, psychologists and travel industry workers were asked to quantify the national flying tension for msnbc.com. On a scale of one to 10, if America’s pre-9/11 flying mood was a collective one (calm), and if our airborne stress touched 10 immediately after the 2001 attacks, where is it today? Most pegged it at six, some said seven, and some said eight. Of course, spiking the U.S. fright-o-meter is the top terrorist goal.

“I have the feeling that we have gotten lucky the past few times with the shoe bomber and, now, with the underwear bomber. And that puts us that much closer to the time that we will not be so lucky,” said J.R. Rodrigues, a frequent business traveler and co-founder of JRBM Software in Cumberland, Rhode Island.

Still, what exactly was it about the foiled Christmas Day attempt that seemed to strike a darker, more disturbing chord with so many flyers? Why that incident? Why now?

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The most common theory among many flyers, therapists and travel experts is that the event only rekindled the notion that we remain vulnerable in the sky — even at home. Little by little, many or most U.S. travelers had started to relax before Christmas 2009, had perhaps even felt safe and snug in their seats. The incident above Detroit was a “re-traumatization,” perhaps sparking a wide-scale case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suggested Richard Zwolinski, a New York City psychotherapist and anxiety expert.

“Each subsequent airplane terror situation is like ripping a Band-Aid off a wound that hasn’t quite healed yet,” Zwolinski said. “The impression with all the back and forth (from politicians) and the mixed messages, leaves us with the scary feeling that no one really knows what they are doing.”

Meanwhile, some shoeless, beltless and lotion-less travelers said their interactions with underpaid, overburdened Transportation Security Administration workers only sap their already-fleeting sense of security. “Half the time they look half-asleep,” said Australian-born comedian Jim Dailakis. TSA screens? “Smokescreens,” Dailakis said. Likewise, cruise planner Anthony Klang dubbed the TSA’s actions as “security theater.”

‘Crisis in confidence’
What’s more, the vast national financial slide further eroded, for some Americans, their belief that the U.S. government could handle “all sorts of federal business, from the economy to the transportation industry,” added psychologist Brein, who contends the country is reeling from a “crisis in confidence.”

“What’s bothering people is a culmination of things,” agreed Carolyn Paddock, who worked as a flight attendant at Delta Air Lines for 17 years. “Along with terrorists trying to blow up the airplane, there have been a series of aviation accidents, incidents and problems over the past year — plane crashes, pilots being distracted and flying past destinations, pilots landing on the taxiway instead of the runway ... People’s nerves are a bit raw.”

And while it may sound a bit childish, airline cutbacks and extra security rules have stripped some travelers of creature comforts that once helped them soothe stress: pillows, blankets, even access to the bathroom, said Aricia E. LaFrance, a Denver-area psychotherapist.

Delving even deeper into the human psyche, some Americans were horrified — consciously or subconsciously — at the physical location of the Christmas Day bomb, said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author of “Coping with Terror: Dreams Interrupted.”

“The fact that the underwear bomber was so determined to kill us that he was willing to blow up his genitals to do it ... makes us realize what they are willing to do in their angry and desperate attempts to destroy us,” Lieberman said. “You know how terrorists say, ‘We love death more than you love life?’ Well, a man being willing to blow up his genitals — the seat of his power — is more disturbing than his being willing to die.”

So after that bit of head-to-toe psychoanalysis, where does that leave some flyers? If not terrified, then with fists clenched.

“Rest assured,” said comic Dailakis, “like we’ve seen with other passengers, if someone tried anything, I can honestly say I would beat the living crap out of them. And I would do so with no remorse.”

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