How Professional Flight Companions Open Up the World for Nervous Flyers

Dec 10, 2017

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For most of us, a flight is the beginning of a new adventure, an opportunity to fill in yet a little more of the unknown corners of the world

For Laura L., it’s a nightmare.

The victim of horrific childhood abuse that included confinement, Laura suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, claustrophobia, and panic attacks, and the concept of being trapped in a metal tube at 39,000 feet terrifies her to this day. But she’s also an academic in the Pacific Northwest, and she has to travel to the East Coast several times a year for work and to see family. For much of her adult life, she’d depended on the support of her husband to get through the ordeal of flight, but by the mid-2000s, she was divorced.

(Because of the nature of the abuse she suffered, TPG is not including Laura L.’s full last name or certain identifying details.)

So she tried flying alone for the first time in a long time. It was a disaster.

“I was on a redeye from [a West Coast city] to Washington DC, and I woke up out of a sound sleep into a full-blown panic attack,” Laura said in a recent telephone interview. “I collapsed on the floor of the aisle, and the flight attendants had to help me up and see if there were a medical professional on board. When we landed, they had to have a medical crew meet me at the gate.

“All my family’s on the East Coast, and I was having huge panic attacks on flights despite all my efforts,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do on my own.”

Today she flies across the country about four times a year without trouble, and she manages what was once impossible because of the help of one man a professional flying companion who makes a living by accompanying nervous flyers on their airborne travels.

Flight companions can help you see the world. Photo by franckreporter / Getty Images

“This is something I have a passion for,” Doug Iannelli, the president of Atlanta-based Flying Companions, said. “I can help people whether they’re scared to fly or they can’t walk. Whatever the situation is, I’m glad we can do this, because it lets people remain independent, because it lets them see their friends and family, and because I can see the looks on their faces when we can make this happen for them.”

The 47-year-old former salesman started Flying Companions in 2006 after making travel arrangements for and accompanying a stroke-ridden friend who needed to visit the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

“She didn’t have any friends or family around, and needed assistance to go through the airport,” Iannelli said. “When I got back, I thought there had to be other people who also needed assistance to fly and travel and get through the whole security system.”

Iannelli flies with between 40 and 60 clients a year, all over the US and as far away as Indonesia. About half of his customers hire him primarily because they suffer from flight anxieties or aren’t confident enough to handle the series of minor catastrophes that is, say, your average airport transfer. (The rest largely have physical medical issues.) Many first-timers are older passengers who haven’t flown since before the 9/11 attacks, and are intimidated by the new era of stricter security screenings.

“It’s mostly nervousness about two things: The screening process is the biggest part, but the other part is connections at airports, especially big airports that people are scared about maneuvering around, like Chicago O’Hare, JFK, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta.”

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, Cyndi Glidewell, 61, started Travel Helpers around 2011 after she noticed how many people had trouble figuring out where they were supposed to go and what they were supposed to do at every airport she flew through. As a health consultant and registered nurse, she already flew a lot herself, and acted the Good Samaritan whenever she could. But soon she came to realize she could create a business out of helping nervous flyers by being alongside them for the entirety of their trips.

“If you’re not a frequent traveler, you can be stuck somewhere hours or even days if you don’t know how to handle flight delays,” she said. “It can be very scary for the inexperienced or the elderly. Is it a mechanical problem? Can you ask for another flight? Do you know how to be nice to the gate agent, or do you have your airline on speed dial? Because you have to know that the people at the airline can do things quicker than the gate agents, but many people are dumbstruck when anything interrupts their travels.”

Glidewell has about 10 regular clients she works with, the majority of whom are elderly people who require her medical help. The rest use her to help get through their flying and travel fears. In one case, she was hired because a man was too afraid of flying to escort his elderly mother himself. She’s flown all over the country, and has Executive Platinum status with American Airlines.

“If the client’s with me, I tried to get them upgraded too, because it’s a nice touch,” she said. “This one 83-year-old lady in particular who’d never flown at all, I got her upgraded to first class, and she just giggled every time they buttered her meal.”

Iannelli, on the other hand, swears by his Delta SkyMiles. The airline, he said, is particularly good about meeting clients at the gate with wheelchairs or other services if needed. (He’s also a fan of the Delta lounges, which help ease clients into flying before they actually board.)

Calming down a nervous flyer boils down to the right distraction, Glidewell said. She’s found the iPad to be her most valuable tool by far, loading it up with games (“Bejeweled, because everyone can play it”) and movies (“The movie I’ve used most is Bridesmaids. It’s a bit raunchy, but it’s very distracting.”)

Photo apomares / Getty Images
Loading an iPad with games and movies is a helpful tool. Photo apomares / Getty Images

For Iannelli, it’s about preparing the client for the flight weeks ahead of time, if possible. He reaches out to them and gauges what their needs are and what problems might arise. Some, like Laura L., just need someone they trust to sit next to them. In another case, he spent two weeks in Italy with one woman and several of her friends, essentially acting as a tag-along tour manager who coordinated every aspect of their European vacation until his client was safely back at home. Most, he said, simply end up wanting someone to talk to as they fly.

“Some have been writers, one was a Rockette, one was involved with the White House in the Clinton administration,” he said. “I’ve had doctors, including one instrumental in wiping out polio. It’s very neat to hear their stories, and they’re usually happy to share them.”

Both Iannelli and Glidewell bill for their time as well as airfare and other transportation and hotel costs for themselves, and both make all the travel arrangements and provide door-to-door service as needed. It can get pricey, they admitted, and curious would-be customers often balk at the bill for Iannelli, an average domestic flight runs between $3,300 and $5,000, while Glidewell adds a service charge of around $250 to $500 per leg or per day on top of the cost of the flight and other expenses.

But for Laura L., who has flown with Iannelli for every air trip she’s made since 2006, it’s worth every penny.

“He knows when to wake me up, and he even knows the kind of food I’d want to order when the cart comes around,” she said. “But it’s not just his presence, it’s the idea that if anything happens to me, if I were to be overwhelmed with claustrophobia or a panic attack, he’d be there to explain to the employees on board that there’s nothing to worry about. He negotiates the glitches that come about. These were things that would otherwise be impossible for me to do by myself. It’s made a huge difference in both my personal and professional life. Doug made travel possible for me.”

Feature photo by Westend61 / Getty Images

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