I have a number of friends who hate to fly and one or two who suffer from Pteromerhanophobia, otherwise known as a "fear of flying." As a member of the travel industry, I don't like anyone to fear flying, so for the benefit of all the phobic flyers who break out in a cold sweat just thinking about getting on a plane, I'm dedicating this post to you.
Listed below are the six most common fear factors and ways to help greatly alleviate or completely eliminate these apprehensions. The keen insights and techniques included in this post come from the advice of our friend, Michael Salem, former phobic flyer and author of "Brave Flyer: How to End Your Fear of Flying."
1. FEAR: HEIGHTS
This is one of the more common fears that come to mind when people get asked about their fear of flying. Although this factor is repeatedly named the culprit by fearful flyers, we believe that this specific fear should not be part of the list, because for most of the flight, the plane is so high that a person loses their sense of height altogether. In other words, one has no point of reference to notice how high they are (no small cars or houses can be seen).
How to Manage Fear #1: Heights
• Falling from a fourth floor balcony is not much safer than falling from 30,000 feet. So why does it feel different when you are on a plane? Ask yourself how you manage to be okay with working, visiting a friend, or staying at a hotel on an upper floor. Also, remind yourself how many times you have been in an elevator and were probably just fine with the fact that you had a good distance between you and the ground.
• Remind yourself of this fact: Planes don't just fall from the sky -- the mechanics of their wings do not even allow this free fall to happen. It is a simple question of physics. Even if all the engines were to suddenly lose all power for no good reason (which, by the way, has never happened on a commercial airliner), the plane will turn into a glider and not a piece of rock falling from the sky.
• Don't think of the plane as an elevated object that you are riding, think of it as your 'new' ground, and forget about the 'old' ground (earth). These planes are so massive in size and so stable that you can easily consider them to be a ground on their own.
2. FEAR: ENCLOSED PLACES
Fear of enclosed places, or claustrophobia, happens to some people when they feel that they are trapped in a place that is limited in size and has no easy escape route. This phobia is not limited to being inside of a plane, but to any area that makes the person who suffers from it feel entrapped. Elevators and small closets are examples of such spaces. Although not much can be done to resolve this issue onboard a plane, there are a few things that can significantly help you overcome it.
How to Manage Fear #2: Enclosed Places
• Try to gain more space and room around you by getting online (or at the check-in counter) and requesting certain seats that give you more room. Some airlines charge extra for this service, but it is well worth it. Even better, reserve an exit row seat, if you can, where you will have plenty of leg room. Most airline and travel websites can now show you the seat layout of the plane.
• The ultimate solution for this issue is to book a business or first class seat. Believe me, not only will you eliminate this fear, you will develop a 'Fear of Not Flying'! Obviously (unless there are special discounts) along with your fear you might lose the money in your pocket quickly as well. So this solution has a price tag to it.
• If the above is not an option, make sure you get an aisle seat so you won't feel cramped between two people. In most cases, and pending availability, the reservation agent (or online) can make this happen at no extra charge.
3. FEAR: LOSS OF CONTROL
In many cases, this fear applies to the same people who get nervous when they are in a car and someone else is driving. They somehow believe that they would do a better job driving themselves, and the driver is simply not doing a good job and will get into an accident at any moment. But onboard a plane the feeling of trepidation becomes significantly greater because the situation is a bit different to being in a car. The most obvious distinction is that the sufferer not only feels the lack of control, but they don't know who is in control and whether that person is paying constant attention to what he is doing. Also, the fact that these passengers have no clue how to fly a plane makes them feel weaker and more dependent on that person (i.e., the pilot), about whom they have serious doubts to begin with.
So, with every bump or change in speed, the person who is afflicted with this particular anxiety will wonder what is going on in that small room in the front of the plane. 'I really hope they are paying attention, or are even awake,' might be a thought that comes to mind.
How to Manage Fear #3: Loss of Control
• Remember, the pilot flying the aircraft is a very experienced professional who has undergone rigorous training and has many hours of experience. This is exactly the person you want to trust and leave the controls in his or her hands. It simply does not get any more trustworthy than that.
• Luckily for you, the pilots are physically onboard with you and not flying your plane remotely from a ground control center, and they, like you, have a life and family to worry about as well. So they have the same vested interest as you do in making sure the plane takes off and lands safely.
• Another reason not to worry is that the pilot is not alone, he has a co-pilot to keep a second set of eyes and ears on the instruments. And, in some cases, there will be a third person in the cockpit acting as a relief pilot for the longer trips.
4. FEAR: AIR BUMPS -- TURBULENCE
The mother of all fears! This item never fails to show up on any list when it comes to fear of flying. The funny part about it is that most people who fear it and think about it all the time have little knowledge or background on what causes air bumps (turbulence). What is also funny (or sad) is that turbulence has nothing to do with in-flight risk. I personally (having done a lot of research) never heard of a plane crashing due to air bumps. So if you want to use your rational brain for a second here, there is simply zero risk due to turbulence and absolutely nothing to worry about or even discuss.
Please remember that the air is much like the sea -- it is constantly moving and shifting -- and in the same way that a ship moves up and down, the plane will do the same, but much less. These bumps can be caused from wind uplift which usually happens when flying over mountains where the wind will collide with the mountains and get redirected upwards, causing it to bump your plane from below. Turbulence can also happen when the plane crosses different jet streams or flies close to storms. Whatever the reason may be, it's only the wind bumping the aircraft.
Think about it... and be fair. Being onboard a plane is the smoothest experience you will ever have in any motorized transportation equipment. Don't believe me? Next time you are riding (not driving) a car or a bus, close your eyes and concentrate on the bumpiness of the ride -- it is not a smooth ride at all.
How to Manage Fear #4: Turbulence
• Have you ever heard of a fatal aircraft accident due to air bumps? I personally have not. Keep that in mind when the plane shakes a little bit.
• Don't allow the 'fasten your seat belts' sign scare you when it is due to turbulence. The sign does not mean that the air bumps are dangerous to the aircraft. It simply means that the captain is concerned about passengers who may not be safely fastened in their seats falling down or hurting themselves.
• Many captains (and folks that do not fear flying) do not even notice light or moderate bumps, the very same bumps that make you panic. It is similar to how you would not notice minor ups and downs when riding a car. Your fear and mental state makes a much bigger deal out of it.
• Related to the above item, when air bumps begin, try to look around and see if you can find a passenger who appears not to have even noticed the bump and who is comfortably napping or quietly reading a book. By the way, you will find many of these passengers around you. This should indicate to you that everything is alright. It will also relax you a little bit.
5. FEAR: TAKE-OFF PROCEDURE
The takeoff procedure is a hard one to swallow for many people who fear flying. The complete silence followed by the sudden roar of the engines, and then the rushing speed.
Although every step of this procedure is normal and happens thousands of times every day, it is not a natural feeling for us humans, and some of us take it a step further to where any anxiety becomes a full-blown fear. Remember, that this is the way airplanes have taken off since the dawn of aviation and it is very normal -- this machine was designed specifically to takeoff this way.
The sounds of these engines should never scare you; they are powerful machines with annoyingly loud noises. The pilot and co-pilot have a check list to go over before flying, ensuring that all systems are working properly. They even have a special procedure in case of the (extremely rare) need to abort the takeoff. A few seconds after takeoff, some people report the feeling of falling downwards. If you watch the informational screen, on the back of the seat in front of you or above the aisles, which shows the altitude, you will notice that the plane is constantly climbing to its set altitude -- nothing is falling down. So why do you feel like you're falling? It is usually due to what is known as the decrease rate of climbing. When the pilot decreases the rate of climbing (still climbing, but not as aggressively), a natural feeling of falling down takes place. Think of the elevator; let's say you are on the 1st floor and you press the 8th floor button -- shortly before you arrive at the 8th floor, the elevator slows down (although it is still actually moving upwards), which gives you a brief sensation of falling downwards. This is exactly the same action taking place when you get this feeling during takeoff.
How to Manage Fear #5: Take-off Procedure
• The Internet has many posted videos from inside the cockpit during takeoff. I strongly recommend watching some of them because it will show you that while you are sitting in the back of the plane, panicking, the pilots are completely calm and confident.
• Close your eyes and take deep breaths.
• Concentrate on a totally different subject, preferably a pleasant one. Something like your destination, who and what you will see. You only need to kill a few seconds.
6. FEAR: UNKNOWN OR UNFAMILIAR SOUNDS
This is the item that I refer to as the 'Art School' -- because it makes every person who fears flying an audio artist with a great skill set of imagination and creativity. It sounds a bit funny, but it is so true. Here is what I mean; if you are driving and hear a strange sound when the car is shifting gears, you will either just ignore it as a normal new sound, or assume the gear needs some kind of maintenance sometime soon -- and your thoughts probably end there. But onboard a plane, if you hear any sound, your new artistic imagination skills will start thinking that perhaps a bird hit the plane, or a piece of the plane's body broke and fell off, or the engine is just about to stop working, or the wing might break off... and the funny (or sad) thing is that you build on that 'made up' assumption, and start considering the consequences of this fault in the plane. (Remember our discussion about active imagination?) You actually might even prepare yourself for an emergency, because that sound, which your brain decided was dangerous, has caused an 'imaginary' body/engine problem, leading to an emergency. Wow, now that's the kind of artistic skill that is very much in demand only in Hollywood.
How to Manage Fear #6: Unfamiliar Sounds
• The plane has hundreds of moving parts. It is very normal for these moving parts to make sounds. Honestly, I would be worried if no sounds were produced during takeoff.
• Unless you are an aircraft mechanic or have built airplanes before, you simply do not know what is a 'normal' versus an 'abnormal' sound. So give your nervous system a break and don't pretend that you can be the judge of these sounds. Considering the overwhelming percentage of successful takeoffs versus problematic ones, the chances are well over 99.99 percent that the sounds you are hearing are perfectly normal.
• Again, go to online video postings of takeoffs and watch them at a high volume to hear the sounds. These videos should help you prepare yourself for takeoff by expecting these sounds to happen.
Chris is the President and Co-Founder of ExpertFlyer.com, a service that helps travelers get out of the "Middle Seat" by providing in-depth flight info and alerts when Awards and Upgrades are available. For more info on overcoming your fear of flying, check out Michael Salem's book at www.braveflyer.com.