A few nights after the recent plane crash in Ukraine, I ran into an acquaintance who was heading to Europe later in the week. “It feels weird to fly,” she told me, comparing it to how she felt about boarding a plane for the first time after the 9/11 attacks 13 years ago. I could relate: During my first post-9/11 flight, I was jittery and uneasy the entire way from San Francisco to Minneapolis. (It didn’t help that I was flying alone, in the darkened cabin of a red-eye.)
If plane crashes and tragedies like the one in Ukraine can leave passengers feeling unsettled (or worse), how might they affect people who take to the skies on an almost daily basis? In a piece on The Atlantic yesterday, writer Rebecca Rosen reported on the work of Jeffrey M. Lating, PhD, a professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland who has studied this issue. Rosen writes:
For flight attendants who worked at American Airlines on 9/11, the rates [of PTSD] were… just over 18 percent. This number is so high, Lating says, it is comparable to the rates seen among people living south of Canal Street in Manhattan, the neighborhoods closest to Ground Zero.
Lating and his colleagues found no statistical difference in probable PTSD rates between West Coast flight attendants and East Coasters, who were much more likely to have known the flight attendants killed on 9/11. For flight attendants, it seems that the trauma they experience following a crash comes not only from the loss and tragedy itself, but also from a deep sense of vulnerability. A follow-up study in 2006 found similarly high rates of probable PTSD at another airline, further suggesting that “it didn’t matter what airline you worked for,” says Lating. “The virulent factor in this was, ‘I wonder if I could possibly be next.’ ”
Those fears can make just doing one’s job as a flight attendant incredibly challenging. Many suffering from PTSD try to avoid sights and triggers that recall the initial trauma. But for flight attendants, those reminders are unavoidable, part of the work itself. To have to work through that anxiety, all the while servicing others and maintaining a sense of calm on a flight— “you could imagine how uncomfortable that would be,” Lating say