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Fright cancellation

Month aloft on AirTran, clowning, may have cured comedian’s fear of flying

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By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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35,000 FEET ABOVE BOSTON - Mark Malkoff is spending nearly every hour of every day this month on a plane. He uses baby wipes and hand sanitizer instead of showering. He keeps a change of clothes in the overhead bins. He sleeps in the exit rows. To fend off boredom, he reads everything he can get his hands on.

“I know the SkyMall catalog backwards and forwards,’’ he said.

The funny thing is, the 33-year-old comedian and filmmaker is living on a plane because he’s afraid of flying. He figured that camping out on AirTran Airways planes for 30 days, leaving the cabin only to go onto the tarmac and board another aircraft, would help him get over his anxiety - not to mention provide material for his act.

And the airline saw his stunt as the perfect way to promote its wireless Internet access, which it expects to have installed on every plane next month. Malkoff posts videos online of his inflight high jinks and updates his Twitter followers - who now number more than 3,300 - as often as 80 times a day.

Malkoff’s experiment is an unusual approach to address a common fear. As many as 40 percent of Americans have a fear of flying, according to some estimates. Football commentator John Madden, for one, is famously among them.

Statistically speaking, flying in a plane is 67 times safer than driving the same distance in a car. But there are plenty of things to be anxious about: strange noises and icy runways, not to mention the sheer mystery of how a 154,000-pound machine can fly through the air.

People try to calm their nerves in many ways - alcohol, sedatives, hypnosis, even acupuncture. The airlines try to help, too. AirTran tells its crew to reassure passengers that they are safe, said flight attendant Lesly Stephens. American Airlines flight attendants are instructed to suggest that passengers try a breathing technique or start a conversation. Virgin Atlantic has a Flying Without Fear program that includes psychotherapy and a flight simulator. (Talk-show host Whoopi Goldberg recently took part in the program and highlighted her experience for television on “The View.’’)

That Malkoff chose to conquer his fear by living on an aircraft suits his shtick: He’s known for putting himself in uncomfortable situations. He spent a week last year living in an Ikea store, and in 2007 he hit all 171 Starbucks in Manhattan in one day - an achievement featured on the “Today’’ show.

“Once I’m obsessed with something, there’s no turning back,’’ said Malkoff, who until May worked in television for “The Colbert Report’’ as the audience coordinator, who books and warms up the crowd.

Todd Farchione, who treats people with flying phobia at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, said that exposing yourself to a situation that triggers your anxiety is a key way of conquering it. Malkoff doesn’t seem to have a serious phobia, Farchione said, but he “probably will not be bothered by planes after being on one for 30 days.’’

Malkoff traces his anxiety back to a turbulent flight to Harrisburg, Pa., 10 years ago when the woman sitting next to him started to scream. He came up with the idea of living on a plane a year and a half ago, and it seemed a natural fit when AirTran officials approached him about promoting the airline’s WiFi service. AirTran is compensating Malkoff for his time, but declined to say how much.

Malkoff said his fear isn’t crippling, but it does make for entertaining videos, posted on www.markonairtran.com. The experience is one part reality-TV-style therapy, two parts entertainment. He has put on a flight attendant fashion show, been hosed down on the tarmac in a bathing suit and flippers by the fire department in Flint, Mich., and played Twister in the back of the plane with other passengers.

On day one of his experiment, Malkoff said, he gripped the armrests and squeezed his eyes shut when the plane started hurtling down the runway. To get through turbulence and “the leaning thing,’’ he prayed or thought of the beach.

By day 17, on a flight from Boston to Baltimore, he was calm, sitting in business class where he often is - though he has endured the back row, where the seats don’t recline. Sipping green tea, he checked in with his Twitter followers, many of whom also fear flying.

Malkoff, a vegetarian, has been surviving on pretzels and potato chips, as well as oatmeal, salads, apples, and cups of soup brought back from the terminal by the two-person support crew accompanying him.

He doesn’t drink alcohol, so soothing his nerves that way is out. But his conversations with pilots have helped. Captain Eric Pierson, who was at the helm on one of Malkoff’s flights, reassures people by telling them turbulence is like a boat hitting a wave. That’s useful, Malkoff said - “As long as I know there’s a reason and I hear it from human lips from a person in a pilot’s uniform who has their pilot’s license.’’

He has “more or less’’ conquered his fear during the 130-flight, 100,000-mile-plus odyssey, he said. And with only a few days to go, his thoughts are more about home. When he flew over New York recently, he swore he could almost see his house. “My bed is in there,’’ he remembered thinking. “My soft, soft bed.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com