From therapy pets to colouring books, Canadian airports aim to ease travel anxiety

Montreal has launched a pilot project to bring therapy dogs to travellers at a time when there's a greater interest in learning more about the travel experience.

Montreal's pilot project with 30 therapy dogs is just one way airports try to calm passengers

The YUL Pet Squad has been on the scene since early October, offering a calming presence at the bustling airport. Carson, a two-year-old golden lab, is known as the jokester on the squad. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

The Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport has gone to the dogs. Literally.

The airport is now home to more than 30 dogs that aren't there to sniff out drugs in luggage, but rather to help ease passengers' anxiety. The therapy dogs walk around the airport waiting to be approached, letting travelers choose to interact with them.

It's a pilot project that's already been successful at other Canadian airports. In Calgary, nearly 50 animals are part of their "Pre-Board Pals" program, including at least two cats.

It comes at a time when there's a greater interest in learning more about the travel experience.

A new facility just opened in Ottawa called the Centre for Air Travel Research. It's owned by the National Research Council Canada and bills itself as the first of its kind in the world. The facility features a mock airplane and simulates the entire air travel experience from beginning to end.

"We are slowly trying to work with our different partners; trying to find ways to make travel life a little bit easier, a little bit more comfortable," said Viresh Wickramasinghe, acting director of research and development in the flight research laboratory at the National Research Council Canada.

The Centre even does blood work on volunteers to see how their bodies respond to various stresses.

Initiatives make customers 'feel acknowledged and seen'

In B.C., the Vancouver International Airport recently launched a new initiative called "Fly Calm." It's a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association to offer resources to anxious travellers.

The Fly Calm website offers videos on how to breathe, printable colouring books to help you relax and additional reading materials to help demystify travel, including an explanation of turbulence.

The Vancouver International Airport has collaborated with the Canadian Mental Health Association to create a free, on-the-go colouring book to help passengers relax when travelling. (Fly Calm/Vancouver International Airport)

"The initiatives to try and help their customers feel more calm about flying are great, it's always nice to feel acknowledged and seen," said Ian Shulman, a clinical psychologist.

Shulman runs a program called "Afraid to Fly" with weekend workshops that teach people how to cope more effectively with their anxiety and fears on an airplane. As part of the training, Shulman charters a private plane and takes people up into the air to show them they can do it.

While Shulman is happy the airports are trying, he says it's a bit of a stretch to think it will help a nervous flyer when they're up in the sky.

"When the plane is maybe bouncing around in turbulent air, or something else has happened that activates their body's arousal and defence system, it requires them to have the presence of mind to say, 'Oh yeah, let me think back to how calm and soothed I felt when I was petting that dog or playing with that cat,'" said Shulman.

He says much of the anxiety people experience around flying is rooted in a lack of control. While people are statistically more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, Shulman says trying to rationalize it won't help. In a car, there's more of a perception of control, he says, because you can slow down or pull off the road.

Airlines should remember that passengers are 'human beings'

"One of the best things any airline or airport can do is to remember that people are human beings and they're people and they need to be addressed as people," said Shulman.

He remembers one client of his who walked off a plane because she was too scared, but was gently coached back by the pilot.

Dr. Ian Shulman is a clinical psychologist who has been working in the field of anxiety and phobias for more than 20 years and with people who are afraid to fly since 2008. (Sio Shulman)

"The captain actually came out and spoke with her. [He said,] 'Everything OK? Are you gonna be alright? I don't want you to worry. I'm up front. I'm gonna take care of you.' And it totally calmed her and she walked back on the flight. And that's a story about one person, but I've heard that story several times from very different people."

It's a story Shulman would like to hear more, as airports and airlines take passenger anxiety more seriously.

And they'll have to because air travel is growing fast. The International Air Transport Association predicts the number of airline passengers could double in the next 20 years.


Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.


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