We’ve all heard the trope “you’re more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash,” but that’s little comfort to those who are understandably a little perturbed by the notion of flying hundreds of kms per hour in a hunk of metal some seven miles (7.2 km) above the Earth’s surface. (However, it’s true: the National Safety Council puts the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident at 1 in 107 based on recorded deaths, whereas there was not enough data to even calculate the odds of dying in a plane crash.) By Stefanie Waldek
“When people come in wanting to address a fear of flying, they will often say that they know flying is a safe form of travel and this may make sense to them in a rational, logical way,” says Dr Rebecca Hoffenberg, a clinical psychologist. “The problem is that their body has formed a response pattern where airplanes have become associated with anxiety.”
While a clinical diagnosis of aviophobia — a fear of flying — is pretty rare, only affecting 2.5 percent of the population by some estimates, general anxiety about flying is far more common. Some fliers are worried about being in an enclosed space for too long, others dislike heights, and a select group is terrified they might accidentally open a plane door mid-flight. Further still, some passengers are worried about germs and viruses (ahem, COVID-19), and others are just anxious that they might feel anxious on a plane.
Whatever your trigger may be, there are many ways you can alleviate your anxiety.
These nine tips can help with your fear of flying
1. Demystify turbulence
Turbulence is nothing more than wonky wind currents that cause planes to bobble a bit, not at all unlike driving on a bumpy road or sailing on a choppy sea. But seriously, there’s no need to worry at all: Planes are specifically designed to handle and minimise turbulence.
“When you look out your window and see the wing bobbing up and down as the plane experiences turbulence, don’t fear that the plane is about to come apart,” says pilot Korry Franke. “Instead, be thankful, because those flexing wings are like shock absorbers working to smooth out the bumpy ride on a dirt country road.”
Plus, these days, technology is used to predict areas of turbulence so that pilots can avoid them and provide the smoothest ride possible.
2. Learn about built-in safety features
“Airplanes are mystical — albeit commonplace — machines. They make strange noises and provide unique sensations. They’re complex. And they operate in a system with few parallels to what people know and understand,” says Franke. So comfort yourself by learning how planes are designed to withstand emergencies. Preparedness is key in any emergency situation, so knowing that you’re equipped to handle different scenarios may help ease any worry.
It’s also helpful to do some research about air circulation on planes to help alleviate your fear of contracting COVID-19 on a flight. Fresh air is continually pumped into the plane — the cabin air is refreshed every three minutes — and any recycled air is pushed through HEPA filters that remove 99.9 percent of impurities, including bacteria and viruses. Also, the air in a cabin typically flows from the ceiling to the floor, not from front to back, so contaminants are not typically swirling around. Of course, if your seatmate sneezes, you could become infected, but those odds can be lowered with mask usage, which is a requirement on all airlines.
3. Study your plane crash history
It might sound counterintuitive, but arming yourself with knowledge of past aviation incidents might help you feel more at ease on a flight. Try watching a show like Mayday (also known as Air Disasters), which educates viewers about plane crashes — it tells you what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how the industry has changed to prevent such an incident from happening again.
You can also watch videos of all the tests planes must undergo before being approved for flight, from stress tests that show how much wings can bend to extreme flight tests that push the limits of an aircraft. Planes are really tough.
4. Talk to your flight attendants
Flight attendants are always there for you. “We are your best advocate. We will continue to check up on you and see how you are doing to make sure you feel good during your flight,” says Jennifer Jaki Johnson, a flight attendant and the founder of travel wellness brand Jetsetter Chic. “We are trained to handle fainting, hyperventilation, and a list of various health incidents that may occur on the plane.”
They’re also air safety experts: Flight attendants are required by airlines to do in-person training once a year, and that’s supplemented with regular online training, to ensure they’re up-to-date on emergency procedures. “Our number one priority is to ensure the safety of our passengers,” says Johnson. “So, know you are in good hands.”
5. Take a flying lesson
“I truly believe people generally aren’t fearful of flying; they’re afraid of what they don’t know, or they’re afraid of being out of control,” says Franke. Eliminate the mystery by taking a flying lesson — if not in a real plane, then at least in a simulator. That way, when you get on your next flight as a passenger, you’ll have a much more thorough understanding of how a plane works.
6. Pick a seat that helps you avoid your trigger
One of the few things passengers do have control of on a flight is choosing a seat, and if you’re uncomfortable in the air, it’s worth spending a little extra for that choice. Once you’ve determined what exactly you’re afraid of when it comes to flying, use your seat selection to help you avoid your triggers. If you’re afraid of heights, stay away from the windows. But if you need to know what’s going on outside at all times, then park yourself in a window seat. Aisle seats can be helpful for those who feel claustrophobic or restless and need to move around — upgrading to business or first class could be helpful there, too.
7. See a therapist
If your fear is truly paralysing, you’re probably best off seeking professional help. “Mental health professionals can help individuals overcome a fear of flying through the use of cognitive-behavioural therapy and exposure and response prevention,” says Dr Rachel Kutner, a post-doctoral clinical psychology fellow. Medical doctors can also prescribe anti-anxiety medication, which can certainly help nervous fliers.
Want to try something a little more alternative? Consider hypnosis. “While in hypnosis, the subconscious mind can be programmed to release fear and anxiety,” says hypnotist Eli Bliliuos. “A flying phobia is normally triggered by an event in the past like a turbulent flight, a claustrophobic experience, or even a time a parent expressed a fear of flying. In hypnosis, we help clients let that go.”
8. Find a distraction that works
Some people can get lost in a good movie or podcast, which could distract them from the fact that they’re flying, but it’s not that simple for everyone. “One trick I’ve learned is to focus on the opposite side of my brain,” says travel blogger Nicole Ratner. “So, for instance, I am left-handed, and when any turbulence begins, I will take out a piece of paper and use my opposite hand to write my name over and over again. It helps keep my brain sharp and focused on what’s in front of me to distract me from the fear.”
9. Do it anyway
Exposure therapy really is the best way to confront a phobia. “Exposure allows a person to come into contact with the feared stimulus and disprove their exaggerated, irrational cognitions surrounding the fear,” says Dr Kutner. Avoidance, on the other hand, only makes fears worse. So, if you really want to overcome a fear of flying, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get on a plane.