That evolved into a conversation about flying. It became very quickly apparent to me that she was quite worried about the flight. (Hence her peevishness.) So I spent some time talking calmly about the experience, with a few thoughts about what the fear meant and how I might speak to it if this were my fear.
I know full well that fear of flying isn't born out of rational risk assessment. So do most if not all fearful fliers. She didn't need to hear that from me. It would have just been me calling her foolish, which was both untrue and beside the point.
Rather, I gently reminded her that the flight crew and the cabin crew wanted to get there safely at least as much as she did. We talked about keeping the window shade down at take-off so as not to watch the world blur by, and closing one's eyes so the acceleration pressure felt like a giant, brief body massage. I told her what to expect from the DFW-PDX flight.
In turn, she told me that she was traveling to be a caregiver to a close family member in Portland undergoing a major medical procedure. That was the only reason she was setting foot on an airplane for the first time in several decades. Her flight to DFW from a regional airport had been aboard a much smaller plane with a fairly bumpy ride, and it had stirred her fears.
In the end, I went to board the plane as she went to buy a snack for the flight. I didn't think much more about the conversation. As she boarded a few minutes after I had taken my seat, we exchanged smiles.
Then, just before the gate agent closed the door and locked down the flight, this poor woman fled the plane in the grip of an obvious panic attack.
At that point, I suddenly wished I'd been more focused during our conversation and offered to switch seats to sit next to her. I tried to get up to say something to the purser and the gate agent, but I was in a window seat and they were closing up the flight. There simply wasn't time.
She didn't make the flight. Which means she didn't get to Portland, at least not Monday night, to care for her family member. I don't know what did happen to this woman, and I never will, but I really regret not being just a little more thoughtful. Because I'm pretty sure that sinply by giving her someone sympathetic to focus on, I could have kept her on the plane.