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September 18, 2006

World's first in-airport fear of flying clinic

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It's the Willie Sutton approach: asked why he robbed banks, the debonair, witty thief replied, "Because that's where the money is."

Doh!

Jorge Newbury Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina last month "became the first in the world to feature a permanent, licensed psychiatric clinic dedicated to treating the fear of flying," wrote Monte Reel in a September 4 Washington Post story.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that if you don't happen to live in or be transiting Buenos Aires, you're gonna have to swallow enough Librium to enable you to make it there for treatment.

In the photo above, taken in the airport clinic, founder Dr. Claudio Piá (left) and his assistant, retired Argentinian airline pilot Jorge Albanese (right), bracket client Veronica Taussag.

Argentines love psychotherapy.

One in every 600 people in the country is a psychotherapist, by far the world's highest proportion.

For reference, the U.S. figure is 1 in 2,000.

Here's the article.

    Cloudy Skies? Airport Clinic Grounds Anxiety

    Argentine therapists seek to calm passengers

    With her carry-on backpack hanging from one shoulder, Veronica Taussag had a few minutes to spare before she was scheduled to report to her boarding gate. Bypassing a magazine stand and a coffee shop, she headed toward the latest in airport terminal services: her psychiatrist.

    The city's Jorge Newbery airport three weeks ago became the first in the world to feature a permanent, licensed psychiatric clinic dedicated to treating the fear of flying.

    Located in the domestic airport's main terminal, the private clinic is staffed by a psychiatrist, an educational psychologist and a retired commercial airline pilot. Passengers can vent their worries, learn the basics of aerodynamics or get a prescription for anti-anxiety pills. There are model airplanes, pull-down projection screens that display air crash statistics, posters of high-tech cockpits — but no couch.

    "I have vertigo, and when I get on a plane I have a constant fear that the plane is going to crash," said Taussag, 47, who flew Friday morning to the Patagonian resort city of Bariloche, where she and her husband have a second home. "The problem has intensified for me over the past two years, so I needed to do something."

    Two weeks earlier, she visited the airport and the newly opened office of Poder Volar — Spanish for "Able to Fly" — and consulted its founder, psychiatrist Claudio Plá. As passengers hustled by with their rolling suitcases in tow, Plá prescribed an anti-anxiety pill for Taussag and led her through an eight-hour instructional program meant to prevent the panic that assails her when she straps on her seatbelt and watches the flight attendant demonstrate how to use the oxygen mask.

    On Friday, she checked in with Plá again, quickly collecting some well-wishes before boarding her first flight since her initial session.

    "They explained to me what all the noises are that I might hear when flying and taught me some breathing exercises I can do to help me relax," said Taussag, a homemaker. "I think it has helped a lot."

    Locating a psychiatric practice in an airport terminal might seem unusual, but it should come as no shock that it happened here first. Argentina -- and particularly its capital city — is the world leader in psychologists per capita. That one of them would eventually set up shop between a duty-free store and a shoeshine stand might have seemed simply a matter of time in a place where neuroses are so thoroughly examined.

    In this country of 40 million, one out of every 600 people is a psychoanalyst, according to La Nacion newspaper. Neighboring Uruguay has the next-highest ratio in the world, with one per 900 people. The United States trails with one out of every 2,000 people, La Nacion reported.

    Just last week in Buenos Aires, where one out of every 121 people is a psychologist, two lawmakers proposed changing the name of a road to Sigmund Freud Street in a neighborhood already known as Villa Freud because of its abundance of psychoanalysts.

    Plá had carved out a niche within that crowded mix, dedicating his Buenos Aires practice solely to flying-related disorders in 2000. Other cities had clinics dedicated to the fear of flying, and some of those regularly held workshops led by air-safety experts and behavioral therapists at airports, but he knew of no psychiatrist who had ever permanently set up shop so close to the "focus of the conflict," as he termed it.

    "This is an airport that everyone who is traveling to the north or south of the country must pass through, and they often have to wait here for transfers to other flights," said Plá, 52. "For example, perhaps someone just got off of a bad flight and has to get on another plane right away. In those cases, we prescribe sub-lingual anti-anxiety medication for rapid use. It's not ideal. We believe in preventative treatment."

    Those preventative services, of course, aren't free. For an hour-long consultation, Plá charges $70. The full eight-hour course runs $250.

    In the terminal, Poder Volar attracts passers-by with a flat-screen television that continuously broadcasts overviews of its programs. The results of a poll of 800 travelers in Argentina are displayed on a large banner: About 23 percent reported a fear of flying, and 14 percent said they normally become afraid during times of turbulence. The most common forms of combating those fears are listed as prayer, self-medication, dependence on a flight companion and the consumption of alcohol.

    Plá's philosophy is that the more people know about flying, the less they'll fear it. Jorge Albanese, a retired pilot from the Argentine airline Austral works in the clinic, trying to reassure clients that flying is not nearly as dangerous as they might think.

    "The most common questions I get are whether turbulence can cause a plane to crash, or if a plane can be affected by something like lightning," said Albanese, 62, who retired two years ago after a 27-year career. "People are very aware of the different sounds they hear in the various stages of flight, like the sound the engine makes during a change in altitude. If that sound suddenly goes silent, a lot of people think the engines have shut off and they start fearing that the plane is going to fall."

    The clinic's staff members recite statistics that suggest the chances of dying in an air disaster is one in 11 million, and repeat the oft-used adage that flying is the safest mode of travel. But the patients are not so easily convinced. The staff puts much of the blame on movies, television and the print media. Nadia Caracciolo, who works for the clinic, pulled a recent copy of the arts section of a local newspaper. The cover featured a story about a documentary released in Argentina that criticizes the Argentine air force for corruption in enforcing commercial aviation. Also opening in local theaters was the movie "Flight 93."

    "We can spend a year working on programs teaching people that flights are safe, and one front page like this and it's forgotten in two minutes," Caracciolo said.

    Before her flight, Taussag recalled what she had been told: visualize a successful flight, breathe deeply, eat carbohydrates before the flight and candies on board to help calm anxiety.

    "Right now," she said just before heading to her gate, "I feel fine."

September 18, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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