Cloudy Skies? Airport Clinic Grounds Anxiety

Psychiatrist Claudio Plá, left, and Jorge Albanese led Veronica Taussag through a program and prescribed medication to ease her fear of flying.
Psychiatrist Claudio Plá, left, and Jorge Albanese led Veronica Taussag through a program and prescribed medication to ease her fear of flying. (By Silvina Frydlewsky -- For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 4, 2006

BUENOS AIRES -- With her carry-on backpack hanging from one shoulder, Veronica Taussag had a few minutes to spare before she was scheduled to report to her boarding gate. Bypassing a magazine stand and a coffee shop, she headed toward the latest in airport terminal services: her psychiatrist.

The city's Jorge Newbery airport three weeks ago became the first in the world to feature a permanent, licensed psychiatric clinic dedicated to treating the fear of flying.

Located in the domestic airport's main terminal, the private clinic is staffed by a psychiatrist, an educational psychologist and a retired commercial airline pilot. Passengers can vent their worries, learn the basics of aerodynamics or get a prescription for anti-anxiety pills. There are model airplanes, pull-down projection screens that display air crash statistics, posters of high-tech cockpits -- but no couch.

"I have vertigo, and when I get on a plane I have a constant fear that the plane is going to crash," said Taussag, 47, who flew Friday morning to the Patagonian resort city of Bariloche, where she and her husband have a second home. "The problem has intensified for me over the past two years, so I needed to do something."

Two weeks earlier, she visited the airport and the newly opened office of Poder Volar -- Spanish for "Able to Fly" -- and consulted its founder, psychiatrist Claudio Plá. As passengers hustled by with their rolling suitcases in tow, Plá prescribed an anti-anxiety pill for Taussag and led her through an eight-hour instructional program meant to prevent the panic that assails her when she straps on her seatbelt and watches the flight attendant demonstrate how to use the oxygen mask.

On Friday, she checked in with Plá again, quickly collecting some well-wishes before boarding her first flight since her initial session.

"They explained to me what all the noises are that I might hear when flying and taught me some breathing exercises I can do to help me relax," said Taussag, a homemaker. "I think it has helped a lot."

Locating a psychiatric practice in an airport terminal might seem unusual, but it should come as no shock that it happened here first. Argentina -- and particularly its capital city -- is the world leader in psychologists per capita. That one of them would eventually set up shop between a duty-free store and a shoeshine stand might have seemed simply a matter of time in a place where neuroses are so thoroughly examined.

In this country of 40 million, one out of every 600 people is a psychoanalyst, according to La Nacion newspaper. Neighboring Uruguay has the next-highest ratio in the world, with one per 900 people. The United States trails with one out of every 2,000 people, La Nacion reported.

Just last week in Buenos Aires, where one out of every 121 people is a psychologist, two lawmakers proposed changing the name of a road to Sigmund Freud Street in a neighborhood already known as Villa Freud because of its abundance of psychoanalysts.

Plá had carved out a niche within that crowded mix, dedicating his Buenos Aires practice solely to flying-related disorders in 2000. Other cities had clinics dedicated to the fear of flying, and some of those regularly held workshops led by air-safety experts and behavioral therapists at airports, but he knew of no psychiatrist who had ever permanently set up shop so close to the "focus of the conflict," as he termed it.

"This is an airport that everyone who is traveling to the north or south of the country must pass through, and they often have to wait here for transfers to other flights," said Plá, 52. "For example, perhaps someone just got off of a bad flight and has to get on another plane right away. In those cases, we prescribe sub-lingual anti-anxiety medication for rapid use. It's not ideal. We believe in preventative treatment."

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