Is there any good reason to be scared of flying? Dr. Noah Charney explores the myths and reality surrounding air travel, flying phobia, and the science behind our irrational fears.
I’ve never been afraid of flying. This is perhaps strange, considering my wariness of anything adrenaline-inducing. My idea of an exciting holiday involves walking around European cities, looking at paintings in museums, and eating cake. When I ski, I go as slowly as possible—in fact, I could probably skip the skiing altogether, sit outside one of those huts on the slopes, and order a glass of mulled wine. Adrenaline is my nemesis.
But flying is not an adrenaline sport. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Fear of flying is its own category of phobia, and it is a common one (even for otherwise-adventurous souls) particularly in our current era of high-profile terrorist acts. Never mind that the facts dictate, unarguably, that flying remains one of the safest ways to travel.
The chance of dying in a transportation-related accident in the US, for example, is one in 6,800. The chance of dying in a plane crash? One in 13 million. Yet that doesn’t stop us from getting the sweats when boarding a plane—and yet not think twice about stepping into our car. Part of this is down to visibility. We don’t read in the news about the 26,678 average annual fatalities among Americans driving cars. But a single airplane crash makes international headlines.
According to Journalist Resource, an average of 548 Americans died each year in aviation-related accidents between 2000 to 2009—but 85 per cent of those occurred in private airplane accidents. So if you only fly on commercial airliners, you’re in very safe hands. In the United States, there are 0.07 fatalities per billion passenger miles, which translates like this: If you fly 500 miles every day for a year, you have a fatality risk of one in 85,000. In short, flying is, by far, the safest mode of transit. Period.
Of course, facts don’t matter when it comes to phobias: The other side of the equation is feeling a lack of control. You’re on a plane. A pilot you can’t see transports you to your destination. You feel bumps of turbulence and the shake of the wheels lowering, but you can’t see the causes of these sounds so they’re alien and frightening. If you’re like me—a relentless positivist (provided I’m not engaged in anything adrenaline-inducing)—then you assume all is well, at all times. But not everyone has that attitude.
While turbulence is what passengers fear most, planes are now built in such a way that turbulence cannot cause a plane to crash: Most turbulence-related injuries are the result of unfastened seatbelts and falling luggage.
Thankfully, there are solutions, and they don’t necessarily require medication (although many doctors recommend a mild sedative to help you sleep and relax during a flight, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.) You can try non-medicinal relaxation products that use harmless electromagnetic pulses to trick your brain into feeling relaxed.
You can also meditate, focusing on deep, slow breathing, to naturally relax you. But it takes practice to meditate on-demand, particularly in a potentially non-relaxing environment, with a baby crying on one side and a guy who keeps hogging the armrest on the other.
Airlines themselves also offer more permanent fixes. Air France for example offers one of only a handful airline-sponsored workshops to help passengers conquer their fear of flying and have been running their Anti-Stress Center for over a decade.
In this time, they’ve helped over 6,500 participants, using traditional psychology alongside mindfulness and meditation techniques with the help of experts such as Philippe Goeury, a psychologist and former flight attendant with 30 years of experience. They also use an elaborate simulator that lets participants experience the various movements associated with flying.
When it comes to turbulence, there’s a good reason why the simulator works. By explaining the mechanics of flying, it helps passengers to understand that the sounds and movements of flight are normal. As Air France’s Captain Eric Adams explains, “It is the unknown that scares us. In a car, we see bumps in the road. In a boat, we see waves in the sea, but in an airplane, we can’t physically see the turbulence in the sky, because air is invisible.”
“Make everything as slow as possible: Going to the airport, checking in, boarding. The trick is not to allow the alarm reaction to kick in, by making sure the approach to the plane is without stress.”
Philippe Goeury, psychologist
And yet, while turbulence is what passengers fear most, planes are now built in such a way that turbulence can’t cause a plane to crash: In fact, most turbulence-related injuries are the result of unfastened seatbelts and falling luggage. That’s why the simulator works. “We demonstrate the sounds and mechanisms of a flight under normal conditions,” says Captain Adams, “then demonstrate how the flight crew deal with system failures. Knowledge of what to expect is a strong way to alleviate fears.”
The simulator also helps explain the two types of turbulence. During storm-related turbulence, you get an “updraft”—and it’s this air that bumps into the plane, causing it to shudder upwards—in most cases, pilots navigate to avoid it altogether.
The second type is clean-air turbulence; it’s invisible and where air masses smack into each other. If a plane is sandwiched between these air masses, it gets ‘bumped’. According to an article in Slate, the last plane crash due to turbulence alone (as opposed to resulting human error or a freak mechanical problem) was back in 1966. So turbulence might make you feel queasy, it’s not going to endanger you.
Once you understand the mechanics of flight, it starts to feel less alien. But there are other ways to psychologically prepare yourself for a smooth flight. Goeury from Air France’s Anti-Stress Center, teaches some basic tenets of keeping calm, such as:
– Make everything as slow as possible: Going to the airport, checking in, boarding. The trick is not to allow the alarm reaction to kick in, by making sure the approach to the plane is without stress.
– Never forget the real purpose of the flight, because taking a flight is not a goal in itself. Is it for vacation? Spending good times with friends or family? Keep your eye on the goal, as the flight is usually a means to a happy one.
– Be occupied instead of preoccupied. Try to write down your impressions, do some art therapy, play games (Candy Crush or puzzles occupy the mind nicely) or chat with (willing) neighbors.
Gouery recalls one client who took the Air France workshop: “Thanks to it, she was able to visit her relatives in Chile for the first time in 25 years. She’d always wanted to do so, but had been scared to fly.”
While I’m not sure Candy Crush would be my opiate of choice, distracting yourself and filling your headspace so you don’t worry, is sound advice. The main point is the flight is a means to an end—and that end is (usually) a happy one. Focus on what the flight allows you to do. Perhaps you’re off to Venezuela to jump off Angel Falls wearing only a wingsuit. As for me, I’ll be drinking something warm on top of a mountain in Austria. And not skiing.
Professor of art history, best-selling author, and founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, Noah Charney writes on art and culture for Salon, The Observer, and The Guardian. He lives in Slovenia with his family and hairless dog, Eyck.