This time last year, the thought of stepping foot on an airplane was enough to send me into a mild panic attack. In fact, prior to flying across the country to Portland last spring, I had an actual panic attack. I was flying all-expenses-paid with a friend AND missing school to go represent the University of Alabama at a major PR conference – and I was dreading it.
Fast-forward to this past weekend: I’m up at 4 a.m., driving to Love Field alone, to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Houston in a thunderstorm. My bag and standby ticket in tow, I nervously shuffled through employee security, found my gate and sheepishly explained my non-revenue flying situation to the CSA. My plan? To fly to Houston and catch a quick connection to Birmingham.
For most, this story probably seems like the routine. But for those who understand (or have experienced) a flight phobia, this is a true feat. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.
Thanks to the aforementioned thunderstorms, the flight to Houston took about 30 minutes longer than usual – just long enough for me to miss my (very open) connection to Birmingham. My carefully curated plan crumbled before me as I deplaned, realizing all at once that I was now alone in Houston with no back-up.
Defeated and nervous, I frantically logged into my SWALife (an app for employees to find open standby flights) and searched for the next flight from Houston to Birmingham: A connection in Tampa, which left in two hours. Clicking on the capacity details revealed the dreaded truth: The flight was fully booked, with nine full-time employees listed on standby already, followed by nine other non-revenue passengers.
So much for an easy first experience flying alone, I thought as I trudged to the Tampa gate. What do I do? Do I go back to Dallas? Do I sit here for two more hours and try to get on this (full) flight? When does the next flight for Dallas even leave?
I scanned the board of departures – the next three flights back to Dallas had been canceled due to weather. Oh my God, I slowly realized, I’m going to be stuck in Houston for the rest of the day.
The next two hours crawled. As I sat in the gate area, I conversed with a fellow traveler also trying to reach Birmingham. I let him know I was flying standby and likely wouldn’t be making it to Tampa, and shamefully revealed my plan to return to Dallas as soon as possible.
“You can’t bail now!” He urged, “You have to make it to Birmingham!”
I was touched by this kind stranger’s encouragement. He could’ve easily nodded in agreement with my admission. He could’ve winced empathetically and carried on his reading. But he didn’t. (Southwest passengers are the best.)
“What brings you to Birmingham, anyway?” He asked.
I explained my enrollment at Bama, the friends I was visiting and my internship at Southwest.
“You’re interning with Southwest?” He asked, suddenly very interested. “My daughter has applied for that internship three times. I can’t wait to tell her that there are real people out there who get it.”
And just like that, my faith was restored. It was about this time that they began boarding all the paying passengers, and finally reached the standby list. I stared nervously at the screen as the CSA called out name after name. Glancing around, I noticed nobody was getting up. My name was ticking closer and closer to the top.
Where are all these people? I thought, tensing as the gate agent printed a boarding pass for a person whose name was two above mine.
And finally, as if God Himself had reached down from Heaven and grabbed the microphone, I heard it: “Gatti?”
I spun around. “Gatti?” I asked her again, uncertain that it was possible my luck could’ve shifted so abruptly.
“Yes,” she hissed, clearly annoyed I hadn’t heard her the first time. I shot up, grabbed my bags and the boarding pass, and sprinted down the temporary plane hallway (what are those called, anyway?). Last to board, I scanned for an empty seat, and squeezed between two burly, tattooed men.
I realized as I caught my breath that I was so overwhelmed with relief to have made the Tampa connection that I wasn’t nervous for the flight itself. After a long layover in Tampa and a quick flight to Birmingham, I arrived in one piece.
When I accepted my Southwest offer back in April, Erin thought it was hilarious: “It’s funny that Katie wants to work for an airline, since she’s terrified of flying,” she’d joke.
But after a conversation with one of my (amazing) team members earlier last week, I knew this fear was something I’d have to conquer – and this was the perfect opportunity, given my free flight benefit. Although he was talking about seeking out work opportunities, his advice was eerily applicable: “You need to get out of your comfort zone and do things that you may really not want to do. That’s the only way you’re going to grow.”
For me, my comfort zone was the ground. It held me back from taking trips, from applying for certain jobs, from flying home for weekend trips. It sounds silly, but it was a true mental block.
Maybe flying doesn’t bother you. Maybe your comfort zone is being ensconced in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, because you’re uncomfortable with your body. Maybe your comfort zone is your hometown, and you passed up a great opportunity in another city. Maybe your comfort zone is a state of mind: not allowing yourself to care too much, so as to ensure you’re safe from the inevitable disappointments that life brings.
Whatever it is that holds you back, what’s stopping you from overcoming it? I can honestly say my experience this past weekend (and the attitude with which I’m approaching this summer in general) instilled an invaluable amount of self-confidence in me. I left the airport with that “I can do this” feeling – the one that makes you feel like you’re equipped to problem-solve and overcome.
This weekend, I’m flying to Phoenix – a sentence I never thought I’d be able to utter without experiencing a twinge of terror. Whatever’s been holding you back lately, I urge you to tackle it head-on. Even if you fail at first (or you pick the wrong connection flight in Houston instead of the nonstop), knowing that you tried will give you the courage to persevere.
Y’all have a wonderful night, and remember, bags fly free. :)
The fine print: