Going to an airport makes Arlene Werenich so nervous that the 56-year-old can’t sleep the night before a flight. Trying to find the airline check-in desk, worrying whether she is in the right line and fretting that she may not make her flight because of long lineups at security all make her anxious, she explains.
“It’s so stressful,” says the retiree, who lives in Mississauga.
But next time she flies out of Toronto Pearson International Airport, she might be able to relax a little with the help of a new four-legged friend.
On Feb. 20, Canada’s busiest airport launched a program in partnership with St. John Ambulance that has volunteers walking 13 therapy dogs throughout terminals 1 and 3. The pooches are there to be petted, played with, photographed if you’d like to, and generally help take the edge off for travellers.
“We know that dogs really do bring enjoyment and also relieve stress and anxiety,” says Suzanne Gayle, manager of the Welcome Team Volunteer Program.
Airports can be trying environments. With so much out of a passenger’s control – whether it is a long lineup or a last-minute gate change while dealing with pressure of catching a flight on time – it is easy to see why air travel makes many people harried and nervous. In response, airports across Canada and around the world have begun launching programs and services to help put travellers at ease.
“Airports are becoming more attuned to travellers with hidden challenges,” says Daniel-Robert Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, an industry association. “In terms of travellers with anxiety issues and disabilities that maybe you can’t see, airports are being much more sensitive to that.”
In Calgary, a busy holiday season showed how effective furry companions can be at bringing a sense of calm to a tense atmosphere. A few days before Christmas, hundreds of passengers who had cleared security and were waiting at their gates were told that, because of a security issue, they would have to gather their belongings and go through screening a second time. To help deal with people’s frustrations and potential anxiety, airport staff handed out water and snacks, gave frequent updates – and deployed some cuteness.
“There were YYC [Calgary aiport] preboard pet dogs for anyone to come up and play with,” one of the passengers gushed on Facebook.
Launched in 2016, the airport’s Pre-Board Pals program currently features 52 therapy animals – all dogs except for one cat – that walk around (with volunteers) wearing vests that say “pet me.”
“There’s a lot of stress and anxiety associated with travel,” says Debbie Stahl, director of customer care at the Calgary Airport Authority. “We thought, if there’s something we can do to help reduce that stress, why not try it?”
Similar programs can be found at airports across Canada – including in Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Fort McMurray – and more than 40 in the United States.
But therapy dogs are just one tool airports are using to try to soothe passengers.
Last fall, the Vancouver Airport Authority launched a program in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association called Fly Calm.
The program includes a website that features advice on how to manage stress and anxiety – through breathing techniques, for example – and the importance of staying hydrated. Another component is an adult colouring book that can be downloaded and printed at home, or picked up along with a pack of coloured pencils at presecurity customer information centres at the airport.
“There’s a lot that’s out of our control when we travel, but there are pieces that are within our control as travellers and so at least we can make sure everyone is aware of those,” says Maya Russell, the community engagement director for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s British Columbia division.
Most of the tips are common sense, but are worth reminding people of because they are proven ways to mitigate stress, Russell says.
The colouring books, which depict destinations around the world, are a playful component of the initiative but also an effective one, she says. “It’s actually true that colouring really does force your mind to focus and it can help as a distraction.”
One seemingly unavoidable cause of airport stress is noise pollution. On top of the general hubbub of waiting passengers, travellers are subjected to constant announcements, cacophonous food courts and boisterous children.
Many airports have acknowledged the issue and are making efforts to limit the clamour by adopting “silent” policies; these limit terminal-wide broadcasts in order to create a more relaxed atmosphere. As of last year, for example, Singapore’s Changi Airport stopped making final call announcements for people to go to their boarding gates. It’s the same at Hong Kong International Airport.
Other airports taking such measures include London City Airport, which only makes announcements in the event of a flight disruption or emergency, and Helsinki Airport, where the public-address system is used only in gate areas.
The desire to reduce traveller unease comes after years of industry changes that have only added to the hassle of air travel – self check-in at automated stations, ever-changing security rules, the tightening of baggage restrictions.
“The processes and everything else have changed, which really has increased the stress level for people travelling,” Stahl says. It’s why volunteers at the Calgary airport are asked to take the therapy animals to high-aggravation areas, such as slow-moving security queues.
But now, the seriousness of the issue has begun to influence the way architects design airports. A new terminal set to open at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in four years will feature uninterrupted space and large glass façades amongst other aspects intended to create a calming rhythm.
The trend toward more peaceful airports has been prompted in part by several well-publicized incidents of air rage in recent years, says Brian Sumers, senior airline business editor at Skift, a U.S.-based company that provides news, marketing and research services for the travel industry.
It’s not just passengers who can be on edge, he notes, but also airline employees and airport staff.
“It’s in everybody’s best interests to get people to calm down."