Maiden voyages: What you can learn from a first-time air traveler

By | May 9th, 2010

Do you remember your first time?

The sweaty palms. The racing heart. And the paralyzing fear: What if something goes wrong?

Betsy Talbot was 25 when she took her first flight on a puddle-jumper from Midland, Texas, to Dallas. “I was almost vibrating with excitement,” she remembers. Then the pilot made an announcement: There was a mechanical problem. “All I could think of were disaster scenarios on take-off. I even seriously considered getting off the plane at that point, but when I looked around no one else seemed worried — frustrated, maybe, but not worried.”

Talbot recovered, and then some. She’s now self-employed and is about to travel around the world and write about her experiences on her blog.

I don’t remember my first time; I was just a toddler. But I recently sat next to a virgin on a trip from Orlando to Las Vegas, and neither he — nor I — will forget his first flight. He sprawled into my personal space from his middle seat, fidgeted nervously, and when he spoke I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say.

But as I tried to carry on a conversation in the English language (Me: “There’s really nothing to be afraid of.” Him: “Yah! I’m OK. OK?”) I wondered if there was something to be learned from a first-timer. Roughly 1 in 10 Americans suffer from aerophobia, or fear of flying, although it’s not clear how many of them have never darkened the cabin door of an aircraft. Few Americans have the resources of sportscaster John Madden, who avoids a claustrophobia-inducing flight by using a custom motor coach.

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Incidentally, it isn’t just fear that’s keeping many of us away from a plane, but common sense. Flying has become such an unbelievably humiliating experience, it’s no wonder there are still people out there who haven’t flown. If anything, I’m amazed there aren’t more of them out there.

Can these “never-evers” teach you anything? I think so.

1. Is air travel great, or what? Here’s something we experienced air travelers tend to forget: When you take a moment to think about it, flying is really cool. Kim Davis Ventrella, a marketing ‘manager from Silvermine, Conn., can’t forget her stepdaughter Lauren’s maiden flight in 2001, when she was 9. “The look on her face could only be described euphoric,” she says. “It was amazing to watch her react as the plane lifted off the runway, and she felt airborne for the very first time. I will never forget this image of her.” It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that air travel is a remarkable privilege, and that without it we’d still be spending hours (or days) on the road.

2. Expect the unexpected. You never know when you’re going to sit next to a first-timer. Or what they’ll do. Beth Colt, a restaurateur in Cape Cod, Mass., once found herself next to a couple on their first flight from New Jersey to Denver. “They were both very overweight, the man needing a seat extender to get the seat belt buckled around him,” she says. “Once in the air, we hit a patch of turbulence, not too bad, but for the newbies this was the turning point. He stowed the tray table and started vomiting, and when I say vomiting, let me tell you, this was a roar like a lion. The whole plane could hear him. He filled seven barf bags. Then his wife started to throw up too. I was in the window seat. It was a total nightmare.”

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