Travellers could feel long-lasting impact of volcano disruption

By Robert Bor
April 21, 2010

RobertBor- Professor Robert Bor is a clinical psychologist with a special interest in aviation and  travel psychology. He has published several books on this topic. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The opening of UK airspace on Wednesday will clearly bring some relief to travellers stranded around the world. For others, their misery and feelings of fear and uncertainty will continue well after they have returned home, and that could be still a few weeks for now.

The emotional dust cloud generated could even take months or longer to clear as people struggle to make sense of the vulnerability that they have experienced and hardships they have endured.

Many travellers will be confused by what they perceive to be conflicting information: less than 24 hours ago it was unsafe to fly and now today the authorities have changed their minds.

A large proportion of the travelling public are apprehensive about flying at the best of times, and up to 10 percent suffer from a fear of flying. This new and largely invisible danger that emanates from Iceland will do nothing but feed their anxieties. Fears, phobias and vulnerabilities about travel and flying will be exacerbated at this time.

The human and emotional cost of this unprecedented disruption is enormous and complex. Television and newspapers have brought us images of people stranded abroad. But what is the nature of their distress and misery?

Many will feel vulnerable and abandoned. They will be asking ‘who cares about or for us?’; ‘who is to blame?’. Those stranded repeatedly express deep resentment that they have been left to make their own arrangements and to cope on their own.

Powerful feelings will come to the surface and occasionally spill out into the open; resentment, blame, fear and anger. It will be difficult to fairly attribute this: is it to the aviation authorities, the airlines that cannot accommodate passengers for days to come, the high prices being levied for new flights, ferries, taxis or hotel rooms?

Not all families are in the same place and bound together in this challenging situation. Some are split up, with children or parents abroad and others at home.

They will feel helpless and angry. Disruption and threat to relationships, emotional bonds and attachments are among the strongest feelings we endure and in cases can lead to the presentation of clinical levels of depression and anxiety by those affected.

Some will be extremely anxious and distressed that their personal medication supplies have run out and may have difficulty getting new ones abroad.

Those who are stuck abroad and prevented from going back to work or school will experience anxiety and fear, especially in the current economic climate. And they can probably ill afford the extra costs to them in terms of time (after all, the exam term looms for school children and students) and unforeseen expenses.

Some will harbour additional fears about being absent from work or school and will be stressed by their thoughts about what is going on behind their back whilst being ‘out of the loop’ for longer than planned.

Parents may have not only their own feelings of emotional distress to manage and contain, but also those of their children whom they may not be able to care for properly. Without a measure of privacy, a proper bed, a calming teddy bear at hand, washing facilities and the all-important routine, most parents will have their patience sorely tested.

Those caught up in the flight disruptions are not all holiday makers. Business men and women have been affected. Air crews are stranded in the wrong place. Military flights have also been disrupted adding to the stress and fear of those flying to and from combat zones.

Returning safely to the UK will one important milestone in the long journey home that so many have had to endure. There will be relief and happiness in many families.

But this may not signal the end of the difficult feelings for some who may still have to get back from the ‘wrong’ airport or port, have unforeseen bills to pick up, and questions to answer back at school or work.

Next time they plan their overseas travels they will have this unsettling and unpleasant experience in their minds. The emotional and financial repercussions will continue long after the dust cloud has settled.

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