Today: Tips to overcome a fear of flying
This may come as a (minor) shock to some of you – since I publish a lot of flight trip reports on this blog and since my YouTube flight videos are very popular – but I am terrified of flying (despite having an absolute fascination for the airline industry and being a frequent flyer). And apparently, I am not alone since it is reported that 25% of people have some fear of flying, while about 1 in 10 people have a real phobia of flying.
While it was not a problem for most of my life, it all changed when I was in my younger thirties and took a transatlantic red-eye flight on Continental Airlines (now United) from Newark to Brussels on a stormy April night. Mid-flight, the Boeing 767-400ER encountered some severe turbulence. I still remember the screams of other passengers (including flight attendants strapped in their seats behind me), the freakingly abrupt plane movements (it did feel like sudden drops of several tens of feet), the crackling and never-heard-before sounds of the aircraft’s interior, the brief interruptions of the inflight entertainment program, the frequently changing tones of the aircraft’s engines during the event, and the terrifying looks in everyone’s eyes. It was horrible, absolutely horrible. It lasted for only 20 minutes, but it felt like hours, and it completely changed the way I feel on a plane.
Since that event, I am one of those guys on the plane that behaves apparently unremarkable on the outside, but is quietly dying on the inside. I uneasily move around in my tight seat every time the planes makes a turn (as if I want to counteract the plane’s movement); I don’t have any appetite during the flight despite being served quite often delicious food in Business or First Class; I think of the most unlikely, worst case scenarios when the captain turns on the fasten seatbelt sign; and I make a prayer before takeoff even if I consider myself to be non-religious. What makes it particularly difficult to cope with my fear of flying, is that my anxiety is very unpredictable, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t. Over the years, I noticed though that it mostly happens on overwater flights when the plane is cruising hours away from the nearest diversion airport and the civilized world. Apparently, my fear of flying is more related to being at an uncomfortable distance from land (especially in the unlikely case that something would go wrong) than with flying itself.
It has been said many times before: you’re more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport than on the plane. While it is certainly true, this reassuring knowledge has not really helped calming my nerves (since I am still not in control of the plane). I’ve read tons of tips on the internet to help alleviate my fear, but I found none of them to be very efficient. Nevertheless, I did succeed in overcoming my fear of flying to some degree by applying my own, not always very conventional strategies to cope with the process of flying, and in this article, I want to share them with you.
If you have any other tip(s) on how to deal with a fear of flying, please leave a comment.
- I try to stick to only a few airlines (British Airways and KLM in my case) for most of my travels, since it makes the flight experience more predictable, hereby easing my nerves. What really helps is that British Airways not only has an inflight video to make anxious flyers like me feel more confident, but also that their professional and highly skilled crew always uses the exact same routine for passenger communications. For example, the flight crew always talks over the intercom to the passengers before take-off and 40 minutes before arrival (no matter how short the duration of the flight may be), and the cabin crew always addresses the passengers following their flight crew colleagues’ announcements. Somehow, this predictable routine (often lacking with other airlines) makes me feel a lot more comfortable.
- This may sound rather controversial, but watching all episodes of the Mayday or Aircrash Investigation series did help me to better understand why flying is so safe these days (they are all available on YouTube). Although this TV show shares the stories of some of history’s most heartbreaking airplane disasters, they do it in a non-sensational way, focusing on the events that led to each disaster and their causes as determined by the official investigation. That is how I learned that one of my biggest fears – a midair collision between aircrafts – is in fact a very irrational thought since most planes are now equipped with technology to prevent these kind of disasters from ever happening again.
- I read articles on the website Aviation Herald, which reports on daily incidents and accidents in civil aviation. This excellent site is run by Simon Hradeck, an Austrian expert in aviation safety. Reading the Aviation Herald, and the comments of airline professionals, made me realize that the aviation industry is indeed one of the safest out there, with multiple layers of protection preventing the aircraft from crashing when something goes wrong. I learned that planes can fly on one engine for hours, that inflight cargo fires can be suppressed, and that smoke in the cabin is a terrifying but mostly harmless event.
- For most, flying Business or First Class is a privilege and pure delight. The premium cabins offer flatbeds, delicious food, and excellent service. In addition, the ground experience is much better, with priority check-in, fast lanes at security check points, and access to lounges. For me, the main advantage is that flying Business or First Class offers a less claustrophobic environment, with enclosed suites where I can quietly and discretely cope with my stress without being disturbed and watched by others. From a nervous flyer’s perspective, flying Business or First is so much better and different compared to Economy or Cattle Class, since the latter brings up the worst in one’s behavior, substantially lowering the stress and anxiety thresholds of everyone in that cabin.
- I used to drink alcohol and/or take sleeping pills on a plane, with just one goal in mind: falling asleep as fast as possible so that I would not have to endure the flight in a conscious state of mind. However, I learned the hard way that this did not help at all: the pills and alcohol made me feel mentally cramped and exhausted (since I could not fall asleep anyway) and at one time, I even developed onboard hallucinations because I took too many sleeping pills (I observed plenty of green extra-terrestrial creatures crawling over the airplane seats). Since then, I refrain from drinking alcohol or taking medication on a plane, and it paid off as I not only regained my tranquility in the skies, but also learned to fall asleep the natural way for a couple of hours during most of my longhaul flights.
- Cruising in the darkness of the night worsens my fear of flying, probably because I like to be aware of my spatial surroundings by looking out from the airplane’s window (which somehow gives me peace of mind). So, I always try to avoid overnight, redeye flights, although there’s often no choice (such as on USA to Europe routes, where most flights take place at night).
- Although I realize very well that turbulence cannot bring down a plane (and never has), it still scares the hell out of me every time it happens. Only watching a Youtube clip like this one gives me cold sweats. I know, I shouldn’t be watching this kind of stuff at all, but it is stronger than myself. Nevertheless, I always find it very comforting when the captain upfront announces that we will pass through a pocket of rough air since somehow, the anticipation of a turbulent situation makes it way better to cope with it. In addition, before flying, I always have a look at the website Tubulence Forecast, which offers a tool that gives an estimate on how turbulent your flight might be. Just don’t use it a justification to cancel or alter trips, rather use it as a tool that makes the occurrence or absence of turbulence on your flight a more predictable – and thus less frightening – occurrence.
- If possible, I try to get a seat directly over the plane’s wings since this part of the plane always experiences reduced levels of turbulence intensity: the wings keep the plane flying smoothly, while the roughest spot in turbulent air is usually the plane’s far aft — the rearmost rows closest to the tail.
- As I mentioned above, flying over vast masses of water – hundreds of miles away from a diversion airport – makes my mind running wild and thinking about disaster scenarios that are very unlikely to happen, such as an inflight fire, loss of navigation systems, dysfunction of weather radar systems in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or engine trouble in a twin-engine plane. However, I did read a lot about flying overwater, and as such, gained some non-expert knowledge of overwater ETOPS flights, which are subject to stringent requirements (a somewhat reassuring thought when I have to cross an ocean). The term ETOPS stands for “Extended Range Operation with Two-Engine Airplanes, although some also smilingly refer it to as “Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim”. As outlined on this very informative Wikipedia page, ETOPS certification is a two-step, highly controlled process, where irregularities would immediately lead to a downgrade or suspension of the ETOPS capabilities of an airline:
- First, the airframe and engine combination must satisfy the basic ETOPS requirements during its type certification. Such tests may include shutting down an engine and flying on the remaining engine during the complete diversion time. Often such tests are performed in the middle of the ocean. It must be demonstrated that, during the diversion flight, the flight crew is not unduly burdened by extra workload due to the lost engine and that the probability of the remaining engine failing is extremely remote.
- Second, an airline who conducts ETOPS flights must satisfy their own country’s aviation regulators about their ability to conduct ETOPS flights, which involves compliance with additional special engineering and flight crew procedures in addition to the normal engineering and flight procedures. Pilots and engineering staff must be qualified and trained for ETOPS.
- The one thing that helped me the most to overcome my fear of flying is to have something else to focus on while flying. That is why I started taking photos and clips during my flights in the first place, and publish them afterwards on my blog and YouYube channel. That they became so popular has somewhat complicated my story, since I now feel a motivation to publish even more trip reports (and thus fly more).
- Last but not least, I don’t board airlines with a poor safety ranking. I always avoid flying one of the carriers listed on the European Union’s black list. The latter represents a list of (unsafe) airlines banned within the EU. In addition, I always inform myself about the safety reputation of an airline on the website Airline Ratings. Although I realize very well that ranking airlines according to safety is a very delicate and highly discussed debate, it always reassures me a lot when my airline has an excellent safety reputation.
Enjoy the weekend and stay tuned for Monday when I reveal a new top 10 travel list.