Home Travel Tips Fliers express anxiety over air travel after Boeing 737 Max 9 incident

Fliers express anxiety over air travel after Boeing 737 Max 9 incident

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At the bar of Legal Sea Foods at Reagan National Airport on Thursday, a woman took a few last sips of her drink and closed out her tab.

“Don’t worry, you’re safer up there than you are down here,” bartender Stephen Simon told her. The woman smiled and left three-quarters of the beer behind.

During his 12 years working at the airport, he sees nervous fliers all the time. “You don’t always know where the nervousness is coming from; a lot of people just hate flying,” he added.

These fears are becoming more difficult to tamp down for some fliers as the aviation industry suffers from back-to-back incidents, most notably when a door plug blew out off an Alaska Airlines flight Friday. It resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration grounding some Boeing 737 Max 9 planes, leading Alaska and United Airlines to cancel hundreds of flights.

Less than a week earlier, a Japan Airlines plane burst into flames after colliding with a coast guard aircraft at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Jan. 2. All 379 passengers and crew members escaped safely. Then on Wednesday afternoon, a United flight traveling from Sarasota, Fla., to Chicago diverted to Tampa International Airport because of a possible mechanical issue, according to the airline. The carrier, which grounded nearly 80 Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft, said the plane resumed its flight after the issue was resolved.

Booking site Kayak allows users to filter by aircraft when booking flights and said usage of the 737 Max filter increased threefold in the days following the Alaska Airlines incident. On Wednesday, the company released a more granular feature — the ability for travelers to distinguish between the Max 8 and Max 9 planes.

Jay Franzone, a frequent Alaska Airlines flier based in Honolulu, often uses the airline to go between the mainland and Hawaii, and Max 9s fly those routes. The 28-year-old said the incident has made him think twice about booking flights on the aircraft in the future, “especially since I’m traveling a long distance over water.”

“Boeing clearly hasn’t put safety first,” he said. “It’s more of an apprehension and less of an outright fear though, I would say.”

Rethinking travel plans and seats

Eric Moorer, 35, of D.C. usually prefers his seating arrangement by the cabin’s plane left backside, behind where the pilot would be seated in the cockpit.

Moorer said the habit has morphed into a superstition over the years and plays off a similar travel safety adage that the seat behind the driver’s wheel is the safest. While he doesn’t plan on changing his preferred seating arrangement, Moore changed his flight itinerary for an upcoming work trip to London in March.

The day after the Alaska incident, he noticed his own United Airlines flight would use a Boeing Max plane and switched to a British Airways flight, which would be a Boeing Dreamliner. He spent nearly two hours with United Airlines customer service operators trying to cancel and refund his flight. While it’s hard to predict what the safest seat on a plane might be, Moore said his best bet is changing his own travel plans.

“It’s one of those things where you can only do so much in terms of preventative care and preventative thinking,” he said. “I try to not have it affect the entirety of my thinking or my travel planning as a whole.”

Jeff Juul, a 33-year-old resident in Shakopee, Minn., plans to avoid taking flights out of United and Alaska airlines out of precaution, even if that means having to take a connecting flight or depart from another airport. But if his flight plans result in him having to board a Boeing Max aircraft, he begrudgingly plans to do so.

He said switching his seating arrangements doesn’t ease his main concern with flying on a Boeing Max aircraft: It’s hard to predict whether the plane itself will have another issue. Picking a “safer” plane seat is difficult since these incidents can be unpredictable.

“It’s kind of just like a false sense of security,” he said.

Tom Bunn, a retired airline pilot and licensed therapist, holds a group counseling session on Zoom every Wednesday night. Last evening, about 35 to 40 people showed up, twice as many as usual.

“We had more people on last night than ever,” said Bunn, president and founder of SOAR, a fear-of-flying program that has helped an estimated 15,000 travelers.

Bunn said he was surprised by the tenor of the meeting. The majority of participants were calm.

“Most of them were able to look at [the incident] without freaking out,” he said. “They were able to see that this was rare and shocking, but everybody seemed to be pretty grounded.”

Bunn offered some helpful techniques such as the 5-4-3-2-1 method, which uses all five senses to quiet the mind. He also reassured travelers that the Boeing 737 Max 9 will not return to the air until investigators deem it safe.

Robin Anderson has an upcoming flight on Alaska Airlines to Zihuatanejo, Mexico. The Seattle-based acupuncturist, who has a 4-year-old daughter, said she will not feel fully safe until she’s back home.

Her anxiety has skyrocketed since she heard about the Alaska Airlines news. She couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to her or her daughter if a tragic accident took place.

“Even though they’ve been saying the risk is low, you begin to imagine what your child’s life would be like without you,” said Anderson, 43. “So this is exacerbating that quite a bit for me.”

The five-day trip will depart from Seattle early next week and land in Los Angeles, where she will board another flight that will arrive into Zihuatanejo.

“They’re intrusive thoughts about the safety of my child or my own safety as well — if I didn’t end up dying on a plane, what if I was seriously injured? What if I was permanently disfigured?” she asked.

Until recently, Mary McCarty Earley, a 57-year-old market research analyst and adjunct college lecturer in the D.C. area, described her in-flight personality as a “white-knuckler holding on for dear life.” However, after taking one of Bunn’s classes last year, she has become a more confident flier. So much so that she is not even rattled by the Alaska Airlines news.

Instead of letting her imagination linger on worst-case scenarios, she is focusing on the facts. Flight 1282 safely landed. The Federal Aviation Administration removed that model of aircraft from circulation. The experts are now investigating the cause of the malfunctioning hardware. Her Sunday flight from Washington to Orlando is on an aircraft with a good safety record.

“I have some anticipatory anxiety that I will work with, but I have no doubt that I’ll get on the plane,” she said. “I feel very confident that I have the skill set to not completely freak out.”

Chris Dong contributed to this report.