By Christopher Elliott

Do you remember your first time?

The sweaty palms. The racing heart. And the paralyzing fear: What if something goes wrong?

Betsy Talbot was 25 when she took her first flight on a puddle-jumper from Midland, Texas, to Dallas. "I was almost vibrating with excitement," she remembers. Then the pilot made an announcement: There was a mechanical problem. "All I could think of were disaster scenarios on take-off. I even seriously considered getting off the plane at that point, but when I looked around no one else seemed worried -- frustrated, maybe, but not worried."

Talbot recovered, and then some. She's now self-employed and is about to travel around the world and write about her experiences on her blog.

I don't remember my first time; I was just a toddler. But I recently sat next to a virgin on a trip from Orlando to Las Vegas, and neither he -- nor I -- will forget his first flight. He sprawled into my personal space from his middle seat, fidgeted nervously, and when he spoke I couldn't understand what he was trying to say.

But as I tried to carry on a conversation in the English language (Me: "There's really nothing to be afraid of." Him: "Yah! I'm OK. OK?") I wondered if there was something to be learned from a first-timer. Roughly 1 in 10 Americans suffer from aerophobia, or fear of flying, although it's not clear how many of them have never darkened the cabin door of an aircraft. Few Americans have the resources of sportscaster John Madden, who avoids a claustrophobia-inducing flight by using a custom motor coach.

Incidentally, it isn't just fear that's keeping many of us away from a plane, but common sense. Flying has become such an unbelievably humiliating experience, it's no wonder there are still people out there who haven't flown. If anything, I'm amazed there aren't more of them out there.

Can these "never-evers" teach you anything? I think so.

1. Is air travel great, or what?

Here's something we experienced air travelers tend to forget: When you take a moment to think about it, flying is really cool. Kim Davis Ventrella, a marketing 'manager from Silvermine, Conn., can't forget her stepdaughter Lauren's maiden flight in 2001, when she was 9. "The look on her face could only be described as euphoric," she says. "It was amazing to watch her react as the plane lifted off the runway, and she felt airborne for the very first time. I will never forget this image of her." It's easy to lose sight of the fact that air travel is a remarkable privilege, and that without it we'd still be spending hours (or days) on the road.

2. Expect the unexpected.

You never know when you're going to sit next to a first-timer. Or what they'll do. Beth Colt, a restaurateur in Cape Cod, Mass., once found herself next to a couple on their first flight from New Jersey to Denver. "They were both very overweight, the man needing a seat extender to get the seat belt buckled around him," she says. "Once in the air, we hit a patch of turbulence, not too bad, but for the newbies this was the turning point. He stowed the tray table and started vomiting, and when I say vomiting, let me tell you, this was a roar like a lion. The whole plane could hear him. He filled seven barf bags. Then his wife started to throw up too. I was in the window seat. It was a total nightmare."

3. Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

You think your first flight was awful? Talk to Claude Lambert of Savannah, Ga., who took her first flight in Yugoslavia in 1955. "The plane had seen better days," she recalls. "It probably was a war trophy of some kind. The interior consisted of two benches facing each other and a large square hole in the middle. "I guess that the plate that once covered the hole had been lost, because the trap remained opened during the whole trip." There were no seatbelts. Next to Lambert, a man sat holding onto a goat, afraid that it might disappear down the hole. It's amazing that Lambert boarded another plane, but her experience also puts today's air travel woes into perspective. It could be much worse.

4. Pack your sense of humor.

Bob Bentz once sat next to a frightened first-timer on a recent flight from London to Philadelphia. "He was obviously nervous," he says. "He was asking me a lot of questions about flying and had several scotches." The newbie eventually passed out and woke up when the pilot made an announcement that a passenger had gotten sick and they needed to make an emergency landing in Iceland. "Where are we going to land?" the groggy passenger murmured. Bentz pointed at the North Atlantic below and said, "On one of those ships." To which his seatmate said, "No kidding." (Actually, I changed the quote for the family audience.) They eventually touched down safely -- on land. That was some prank, but it does underscore the need to pack a sense of humor when you fly, regardless of your frequent flier status.

5. There's hope for the future.

Air travel wasn't always such a difficult experience. Don Smith remembers his first flight in 1966, when he was being sent home from Army basic training for Christmas. "I flew military standby in uniform on United from D.C. to Chicago," he says. "I believe I paid $19 or $29. The only empty seat was in first class, and United put me in it. The flight attendant asked me, 'Private Smith, how would you like your steak prepared?' I knew then that I could learn to love flying." When I hear from readers like Smith, I don't get upset about how far we've fallen since then. I'm hopeful that flying can again become a civil, even elegant, experience.

What can we learn from those who have never flown? That air travel is an amazing, random, funny, life-affirming and hopeful experience. And a musical one, too.

Yes, musical. Tim Speer, a quality assurance manager from Weymouth, Mass., remembers being seated next to a first-timer who was "terrified of the plane crashing and never seeing her children again" and grabbed his hand as the plane taxied down the runway.

"I somewhat jokingly asked if she'd like for me to sing her a song as well, to which she replied 'Yes, please! Anything to distract me!' So I obliged and sang 'Goodbye to Love' and 'Superstar' by The Carpenters the entire time we were in the air. As we touched down, she said thank you, released her grip, and we went our separate ways."

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.


© U.S. Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter

Travel | What You Can Learn From First-Time Air Travelers