UW research explores links between air travel and stress

Psychology professor Irwin Sarason (left) and doctoral student Jonathan Bricker. (Photo by Kathy Sauber)

Like Orville and Wilbur Wright before them, Irwin Sarason and Jonathan Bricker have made aviation history.

And they did it without leaving the ground—not even for 120 feet.

Sarason, a University of Washington psychology professor, and Bricker, a doctoral student, have conducted a pioneering study of people who fly frequently for business. Their research, presented at last year’s annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, explored the links between air travel and stress using the Internet as a reporting tool.

Their overall conclusion—flying is no picnic—won’t shock anyone whose baggage went to the Twilight Zone or whose plane spent more time on the tarmac than in the sky.

“Everybody has had awful experiences and … over time the experiences have gotten worse,” says Sarason. “You don’t have to do a study to find that out.”

But even a 747 full of hellish anecdotes is no substitute for formal research if you want to influence airline practices and passenger habits to make flying a more heavenly experience—the ultimate goal of Bricker and Sarason.

If Sarason and Bricker succeed, hordes of frequent flyers—nearly 300 million people fly for business every year—just might hail them as bigger heroes than the Wright brothers.

“There’s really no research on the topic,” says Sarason. “Here you have hundreds of millions of people running around on planes and we know nothing about them.”

Not anymore. Thanks to the two UW researchers, we now know men and women react differently to some aspects of air travel and how someone handles feelings such as anger and anxiety influence a passenger’s experience.

So how surprising is that? Perhaps not very. However, with incidents of air rage climbing and passenger volume soaring, “it may be useful to prevent … people from flying off the handle in the first place,” Sarason says dryly. “It scares the hell out of the flight attendants.”

Although most people don’t act violently, the threat is real. Bricker and Sarason cite statistics estimating 5,000 violent incidents occurred at airports and on airplanes in 1998. A recent Newsweek story cited several incidents. They included:

  • A passenger attacking a flight attendant and two passengers when told he had to wait his turn for a drink.
  • A woman trying to batter her way into the cockpit after learning the flight would be two hours late.
  • Singer Diana Ross, upset at being frisked too intimately, squeezing an airport security woman’s breast and asking, “How do you like it?”

The Bricker/Sarason study involved more than 300 Seattle and San Francisco-based employees of an international consulting firm who flew an average of 21 business trips in the previous year—90 percent of the time in coach class.

“It’s the first methodologically sound study done on the topic,” says Sarason, who eventually hopes to partner with an airline or other corporation to promote remedies to air travel stress.

As part of their research, Bricker and Sarason developed an Air Transit Stress Scale to gauge how upset people become when they encounter 11 typical situations faced by travelers.

Key findings? Anxious people are more likely to suffer air-travel stress. The risk climbs for men who are also anger-prone and for women who fly to unfamiliar destinations. Anxious women who fly to unfamiliar destinations are at the greatest risk due to concerns about their personal safety.

That kind of information could be useful to employers when deciding who to send on business trips and where to send them, says Sarason. “I think it’s really important for them to know who’s going to have trouble and who’s going to handle it.”

Sarason says a cartoon by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s David Horsey, ’75, captures the kind of conditions that led to the study. The cartoon appeared last May after Horsey returned from a trip to Phoenix.

“Everyone was crowded in like sardines,” recalls Horsey. “There was one woman standing up during most of the flight because she was seated next to this very large guy who was crammed into a very small seat. He was uncomfortable. She was uncomfortable.

“I was surrounded by the WSU baseball team, who were all big guys. The meal was peanuts. It just struck me how weird this was.”

After winning the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, Horsey has been flying a lot more lately—and enjoying it less.

“Most of my experiences have been OK. I’m just anxious to put [the flight] behind me,” he says.

That’s hardly the attitude airlines hope to inspire with slogans such as “Fly the Friendly Skies” and “The Only Way to Fly.”

In fact, Sarason and Bricker believe fewer passengers would be fed up if airlines would only fess up to the realities of air travel.

“The airlines have a tendency to make things seem a lot better than they are,” says Sarason. “I think it’s the expectations that people have, that influence how they’re going to react if bad things happen.”

Horsey has learned to lower his.

“I assume the worst, which I guess is good, because it’s usually better,” he says.

Usually, but not always.

When a flight between Memphis and Chattanooga, Tenn., was overbooked, Horsey volunteered to be bumped in exchange for $500 and a free hotel room.

“It sounded like a great idea at the time.”

Right.

It took 1-1/2 hours for someone to arrive with the voucher for Horsey’s hotel, which turned out to be “very ratty [and] in a sleazy strip near the airport.” By the time he got there, the hotel restaurant was closing and the only nearby places to eat were “a couple of strip joints.”

“The good will they expected to get from me they lost pretty quickly because they handled it so poorly,” says Horsey.

Sarason and Bricker couldn’t have timed their study better. It comes amid heightened public, media and government scrutiny of the airline industry.

In the first nine months of 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation received almost 16,000 complaints from air travelers—twice last year’s rate. And the department estimates that for every complaint it receives, the airlines receive 400.

A recent customer satisfaction survey by the University of Michigan ranked airlines third from the bottom in a list of 34 industries and public services.

Several web sites, including ticked.com and PassengerRights.com, are full of horror stories from passengers claiming to have been bullied, deceived and stranded by airlines.

Not surprisingly, 43 percent of the respondents to a Newsweek poll said flying has become “more stressful in recent years.”

Congress considered passing a Passengers Bill of Rights last year covering such issues as lost baggage, unexplained delays and confusing fares.

Although the airlines managed to stave off legislation, they couldn’t entirely wriggle off the hook. They signed an Airline Customer Service Commitment with Congress. The agreement required airlines to prepare customer service plans addressing 12 general areas—many of them related to the factors identified in the Sarason/Bricker Air Transit Stress Scale (ATSS).

The airlines submitted their plans in July and had to implement them by Dec. 15. But that’s not all. The transportation department has assigned 19 auditors to prepare two reports—one due in June and the other in December—to gauge how well the airlines live up to their plans. Much of the content will be based on numerous flights each auditor will take.

Against that backdrop, Sarason and Bricker have enjoyed a lingering 15 minutes of fame. Newspapers, magazines and television stations have been steadily requesting interviews ever since the University sent a press release announcing their study in August.

“It’s been constant,” says Sarason. “At least every two weeks we get a phone call.”

In one case, a TV station filmed Sarason and Bricker questioning passengers as they disembarked at Sea-Tac Airport. Even the New York Times inquired about a possible interview.

“Interestingly, we haven’t heard from one airline,” says Bricker.

That doesn’t surprise UW Marketing Lecturer Mary Ann Quarton. If airlines embraced the advice of Sarason and Bricker to be more upfront about air travel’s potential potholes, they would violate a marketing canon: never introduce negative consequences.

“The whole marketing framework says you find out what the customer wants and you try to give them that,” says Quarton.

The Air Transport Association, an industrywide group, declined to comment on Sarason’s study for this story. But Cheryl Temple, manager of public affairs for locally based Horizon Air, said her airline already is working to streamline air travel in several ways, including pushing for better airport design and expanding the use of technology. For instance, passengers can now check in and print out their boarding passes from their home computer.

“Things happen,” says Temple, “but it’s not as frustrating as people generally think—or as the media generally thinks.”

Bricker says an airline that prepared passengers for the “things” that happen would win consumer points for honesty.

His interest in air travel was triggered by a stint selling airline tickets at a travel agency during his undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I saw a lot of people under stress,” he says.

Chances are Tom Friberg, ’70, ’76, was not one of them.

When it comes to flight delays and missed connections—two prominent factors on the ATSS—frequent flying has taught Friberg what Sarason and Bricker call “adaptive behavior.”

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” says Friberg, a unit leader and project manager at the Weyerhaeuser Co. “Getting someplace at the expected time, it’s a crap shoot. If I get there on time, I won. If I don’t, I’ll get there sooner or later.”

For Friberg, stress is relative. After all, he says, when you’ve flown out of Afghanistan at midnight to avoid rebel rockets, killing time in a terminal is no big deal.

Besides, says Friberg, people often invite stress by expecting a complex system fraught with variables to work like clockwork every time. He doesn’t.

“When you arrive, is when you arrive. Stewing and fussing and fuming about it isn’t going to get you there faster.”

If Friberg has an “absolute, positive, have-to-be-there meeting” scheduled, “I’ll fly the day before. I won’t leave it to chance.”

He recalls flying to Bangor, Maine, with a trunk full of gear to test some equipment Weyerhaeuser was considering buying.

“I went from here to Denver to Bangor. My gear went from here to Denver to Miami.” Fortunately, Friberg flew on Saturday, the meeting was on Monday, and his gear arrived on Sunday.

Besides flying a day early, another way to curb stress is to allow plenty of time between connecting flights—a strategy Sarason both preaches and practices.

During a trip to Europe, he and his wife were scheduled to fly from Barcelona to Frankfurt, where they would catch their flight home. Given a choice between flights arriving in Frankfurt one-half hour before their plane home or 3-1/2 hours, they chose the latter.

Good thing. Their flight from Barcelona was delayed and they would have missed the connection.

“The point is, we made a decision,” says Sarason. “We were willing to wait in the airport.”

Even so, the temptation to avoid long layovers is strong—a temptation fed by “unrealistic” scheduling by airlines, says Bricker. “They claim that things that go wrong are beyond their control,” he says.

It’s true airlines can’t control the weather and must cope with overwhelmed air-traffic control systems, but they—like passengers—could build bigger cushions into their schedules, say critics.

“The tighter the schedule, the greater the likelihood that problems will arise,” says Sarason.

Candid communication would help too, says Sarason.

“Airlines have a right to schedule flights when they feel it’s best to schedule them, but they should at least let people know that 35 minutes is not much time to get from one terminal to another.”

Consumer demand for cheap fares plays a major role in all of this. Thanks to deregulation, airlines compete viciously. As a result, flying is more affordable, but the meals are cheaper, seats tighter and planes fuller—all fuel for irritation.

In addition, prices swing drastically according to numerous variables such as time of day and day of week. The result? Fare envy.

“I think now people are much more aware that on the same plane for the same seat people are paying wildly different fares,” says Horsey. “It makes you want to get the lowest fare [and] makes you very aware if you don’t have it.”

Even so, at its heart, the Bricker/Sarason study is less an indictment of the airline industry than a call for antidotes to its inherent stresses.

Eliminating excessive delays, lost luggage and confusing pricing is a job for Congress and airline CEOs.

“What Jonathan and I are concerned about is what can the individual traveler do—without waiting for these changes that may take years to come about,” says Sarason.

The key is adaptive behavior, say Sarason and Bricker. Examples include:

  • Establish a prearranged backup plan in case your flight is late.
  • Schedule nonstop flights whenever possible.
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as deep breathing.

Until now, Sarason’s work at the UW has focused on test anxiety. Besides exploring a new subject, his air-travel study marks his first use of the Internet to collect subject responses. It probably won’t be the last, given how convenient it was for subjects to respond and for Sarason and Bricker to manage the data—all via a secure Web site.

“I think the Internet is going to make a big difference in how we do psychological research,” says Sarason.

In the future, Sarason and Bricker hope to repeat the study with other groups of travelers such as flight attendants, pro athletes and tourists and measure the effects of other factors such as separation from family. And they’d love to team up with an airline to train flight attendants and produce in-flight videos that help people cope with stressful situations that arise.

“It wouldn’t be difficult to teach passengers some relaxation skills and provide more information on what to expect at their destination,” says Sarason.

Friberg applauds the idea, but if current in-flight safety videos are any example, he doubts airlines would be willing to address those issues frankly.

“In the unlikely event of a water landing?” he says mockingly. “C’mon. That’s a crash into the sea!”

Temple says people already understand air travel is “a little risky sometimes” without hearing it from an in-flight video.

“I can’t imagine airlines saying, ‘This is how you should be prepared for losing your luggage. This is how you should be prepared for losing your ticket.’ What to expect at [your] destination is reasonable. I don’t know about the relaxation thing. I don’t see that happening.”

Neither does Quarton. She says that for some people, learning to cope with stress might actually cause stress by introducing possibilities they wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

Nevertheless, Sarason believes it’s only a matter of time before air-travel stress factors are confronted openly. Although not nearly as life-threatening, he compares the situation to cigarettes and cancer.

“As the information multiplied, at least it became necessary to put warning labels on packages,” says Sarason. “The same thing is going to happen here. Because the stresses are just going to get worse.”

Air Transit Stress Scale

Professor Irwin Sarason and doctoral student Jonathan Bricker identified 11 significant causes of air-travel stress:

 

  • Late arrival/departure.
  • Missed connecting flight
  • Waiting for car rental/hotel/airport shuttle.
  • Waiting for car rental/hotel/airline check-in.
  • Wrong directions.
  • Baggage hand-inspected.
  • Crowded plane.
  • Got lost.
  • Trouble finding the gate.
  • Lost baggage.