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Fly long enough and you see just about everything. You might even experience an episode of the nervous flyer. Sure, people who are afraid of flying are far from ridiculous paranoiacs. But if you've ever been a casualty of a truly rattled traveler, you know how badly a single individual's incapacity can upset, with relative ease, 300-odd other airborne lives—not to mention all of the people on the ground expecting those passengers to arrive on time.

A scenario that some of us have experienced is the one in which a passenger actually takes his seat on the plane, but then sometime during boarding decides that he has changed his mind, cannot handle the thought of flying after all, and needs to disembark.

Now, for the individual who tardily discovers that he doesn't really have the gumption and determination—or prescriptions—to endure the flight, the whole incident is unfortunate. For the rest of us hot, harried, and time-stressed travelers, the incident is a real sock in the chops. That's because the nervous flyer forgot that the delay he precipitated doesn't end when he leaves the plane. In fact, the delay continues while everyone on the plane waits for his bags to be retrieved from the belly of the plane. The delay is further compounded if the plane manages to miss its assigned takeoff slot, meaning seated passengers must cool their heels on the tarmac, zipped up inside that nice cool aluminum can, waiting for their flight to be re-accommodated. While 'tarmacking' may be caused by many different misadventures, the nervous flyer certainly is one of them.

Seeing someone have a complete panic attack in the terminal due to a missed connection or lost bags is not a big deal. It happens all the time. So long as these emotionally unstable flyers don't board their flight, it doesn't usually adversely affect other road warriors.

It's simple to say the solution is for this type of person to avoid flying. Even a single episode like the one I described above ought to get the nervous flyer to seriously consider checking in at the John Madden alternative transportation universe of buses, trains, and automobiles. After all, if even a coach of the Oakland Raiders can admit to a fear of flying, why not them too? Why dodge the truth by thinking that a cocktail or sleeping pill is the crutch they need? I think we all saw 'the movie' on the subject in 7th grade phys-ed class. We all know that drugs and alcohol can kill lots of things—brain cells, relationships, people—everything but fear. In fact, we all know drugs and alcohol only make a bad situation worse.

When I find myself seated near a nervous traveler (I tend to pick up on the early warning signs) I usually try to avoid contact. For example, just last week on my flight to Madrid the Frenchwoman next to me exuded all of the visible cues of flight fright. She was opening and closing her book; she couldn't concentrate. Her window was shuttered. She kept rising to fumble through things in the overhead bin. She fidgeted. She even engaged me in small talk, which was fine, except for the fact that je ne parle pas français.

I was conflicted. My mother always told me it was best to avoid a "scene." I knew if I spoke to her and she got the impression that I was trying to calm her down she would become self-conscious and it would make her feel worse. I didn't really know what to do.

As we began our descent, we found ourselves in a pretty decent electrical storm. It was nighttime and the effect of the lightning bolts seemed that much more startling and uncomfortably close. Several bolts a minute bracketed the plane. In severely broken English my seatmate asked if I were going home. In severely broken French I replied yes, I lived in Madrid. She seemed like a nice person who was a little rattled by the storm and needed someone with whom to talk and divert her attention. I obliged. Our conversation, limited by the language barrier, but enlivened by hand gestures, awkward nodding, and smiling (you know the drill), centered on her weekend plans with friends in Spain. Before we knew it, we had touched down. Suffice it to say she was visibly relieved.

Lightning seems spooky anytime you find yourself going 400+ MPH in a stainless steel tube shot across the sky. Hell, lightning is pretty scary any way you slice it. I never caught my seatmate's name. But fortunately, as bad as the lightning had her scared, she wasn't the type of nervous flyer to turn that fear into a tarmac delay.

I learned the hard way never to become one of those people who says: "It's ridiculous to be afraid of flying!" or "Flying is safer than driving in a car!" The reason is twofold: (1) you can't rationalize someone else's irrational fear for them, and (2) if you play shrink and convince a nervous flyer that flying is okay, and if that person subsequently causes a tarmac delay, then it's you who are at fault.

Road Warrior • Miami •