Tips to overcome a fear of flying

Friday newsletters always feature luxury travel contests, tips, series, or news.

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.

fear of flying - flight anxiety

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.

  • 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.
  • 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 Airplanesalthough 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.

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  1. Wow, I never would have suspected your fear considering all the places you travel to. I have a very similar level of fear that’s developed over the past 10 years, especially when over water. (Hawaii kind of terrifies me!) I really like your idea of flying with one airline that has a good safety record. Yet it’s so unfortunate that these days passengers and ground crew may present the biggest threat to our safety. Excellent, honest post. Safe travels!! 🙂

  2. That’s incredible to see how I could have written (in almost every detail provided) your post “travel tip: How to overcome a fear of flying?’
    I was really surprised to see how similar we feel for that : that’s my flying life story!!! Except that it started not with a turbulence but with a diversion after the Captain has announced in a shaking voice that we have divert and land for “technical reason”. These were the scariest 20 mn of my life, nothing happened but I just realized that “this could happen to me” and started to fear from flying!
    And by the way, your tips are great and they work!

  3. Thank you very much for sharing this. I have started following your YouTube site in large part because I find it helps allay my own fear of flying. In fact I was thinking how nice it would be to be as relaxed as you seemed to be about flying! Thank you for sharing your advice and experience – it’s most helpful.

  4. Oh my God
    Every single thing you described about your fears is the same for me . I never talked about my fears to anyone. Thanx for sharing your exerience .I am currently using anxiety medication and sleeping pills to sleep throughout the flight .even when flying business and as a result I don’t enjoy the food or the service

  5. your just like me, when the pilot is making a turn i always move the other side to try and stabalize the plane. thanks for the tips it helped me alot

  6. Fantastic post! We’ll share it on our page as we have certainly dealt with a lot of fearful travelers (when transporting them to the airport).

  7. I can relate to many of the things you describe and these are all great tips! Perhaps one additional thing I usually take into account is the aircraft’s wing load (the loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of the wing). The higher the wing load, the less likely a plane will be shaken by turbulence. As such, the B747 and A380 are my preferred choices whenever available.

  8. I completed 25yrs service with Air New Zealand, the last 10yrs in Load Control responsible for aircraft weight limits not being exceeded, tracking the C of G as the plane is loaded with passengers and/or freight, eventually passing these results to the flight deck. Your article could easily have been written by me, even after the experience of my job, I fly with a constant companion, anxiety.. Slight bumps in the journey have me waiting for a bigger one, the seat belt sign is a signal to tighten my belt. Whilst reclining, the slightest bump has me sitting up straight with my feet flat on the floor as though that would make a difference to the safety of the aircraft..I still fly though, our family is separated by continents so it is a necessity, I become a very confident flyer when walking the airport concourse at our destination..Thank you for the article. .

  9. hi, today is the 1st time i saw your video, weird enough, as i m crazy about air plane videos, be it manufacturing to announcement of new planes to accidents or whatever … likewise you, i am also a frequent flyer and every single word you wrote, i am shell shocked I also do and myself follow and i love the fact that there is some1 exactly similar to me exist.
    the only thing differs is, i don’t drink alcohol anyway and i always bought pills but till today never took them. as a religious person, i do pray a lot in good and bad times, almost during the whole flight time and that does help me a lot to control my nerves. and trust me, i hardly eat on the plane. coz i always felt, that turbulence happens during food time. also i talk to air hostess a lot and they help me a lot after realizing my situation and make my mind away from the turbulence situation.
    one thing i also do, which i m sure u also do it but may b didn’t mention is … i look at the path of the plane before travelling and i check the air craft recent history and also the current political situation from the country i m flying to the countries in middle. also, i keep notice of global warmining effects on the my flight’s path, includes volcanoes and earthquake possibilities, as i did face turbulence on my trips to Indonesia and ice land due to such phenomena.
    also i would love to know you more and talk to you. as i truly felt, we are super similar persons on the air plane and may b we might bump in same flight in near future. as i love travelling equally, have travel-led almost 41 countries, though still in early 30s and would love to make it to 50 countries in exploring the beautiful world 🙂

  10. I’m getting ready to take my first flight (that I can remember) in a few weeks and I came across your YouTube channel. I couldn’t believe that you’re afraid of flying, but after reading this, it sounds like your fear of flying is like my fear of heights in that it has some conditions. It’s amazing that you can fight it the way you do!

    BTW, I’m also a big fan of “Mayday,” but here, it’s known as “Air Disasters.”

  11. I was highly surprised about your fear of flying. I wonder if your experience has become a little easier since you first broached this subject 3 years ago. I have learned to have faith in reputable airlines’ safety records. As a solo traveller, I don’t have anyone to reassure me, but I don’t tend to worry much now. Taking photos can be a good distraction as I discovered on my first really bumpy ride in a (single-engine) Beechcraft Bonanza some years ago. More an A350/380 person now, if possible in Business Class, just in front of the wing. I actually relish the rush of take-off and give the pilot/s points out of 10 for landings – both good distractions. 🙂

  12. I had stopped flying due to my extreme fear. When a work trip came up to Cannes I actually contemplated breaking my foot so I wouldn’t have to go. That made me realize I had enough with fear. I went to a hypnotherapist. She taught me how fear works, how it grows and ways that I can calm myself. I owe her a debt of gratitude. Since then I have been to Bali, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Hong Kong. I still don’t LIKE flying. I will always hate it but I can do it and without a panic attack!

  13. Really great advice, developed mostly on your own and from your experiences and understanding yourself. One thing you didn’t mention is many airlines, in support of nervous flyers, can arrange to have an off-duty pilot call you at home the night before. This has helped thousands of flyers of the years with these programs. Calming and sleeping medications, like Ambien, are downright dangerous in my view. Moreover, pilots are trained to speak in a certain tone and use certain words in their pre take-off and pre landing announcements. A pilot friend of mine jokes he practises with his wife before they’re intimate ))))))))

  14. Hey Dr. LTE! Excellent write-up! I hate to think of you not enjoying all those yummy meals on your flights! What helped me to overcome slight flying anxiety was to watch videos about how a plane actually gets off the ground and stays in the air, aka aerodynamics 🙂 What terrifies me is being a passenger in a car. I try to sit in back seat if I’m not the only passenger and look out the side window. If I’m in front, I literally clench my teeth the whole time. I try to do the driving whenever possible! Don’t even talk to me about NYC cab drivers, although I’m getting better dealing with that, sort of…Uber and Lyft drivers seem a bit more careful, but not always…

  15. There are some really helpful tips and clever ideas in this list! Never would have thought to watch a show about problems in the air to help make sense of the fear in your mind. Thanks!

  16. I was in your same situation: I flew many times in my life and, from a moment onwards, despite the fact that I didn’t have a traumatising experience like yours, I started to be scared of flying. I can see myself in your words. I could feel my body and mind in constant alert, listening to every change in engine sounds, my digestive system in strong tension, my hands would sweat so much that the shape of my fingers would stay on my trousers if I kept my hands on my legs.

    The thing is, as you know, that this is a mental process, is a survival mechanism. No playlist/movie/wine will ever cure this.

    Personally, I feel like this is a thing of the past for me and I owe it to the flying with confidence course that BA does. It’s a full day experience with pilots, cabin crews and a psychologist. At the end of the day there is also a non-compulsory 40 Mon flight, during which the captain is on constant contact with the cabin and explains every single manouver/noise/procedure/phisica feeling you may experience at a given time and why that’s happening. I found it miraculous. I am happy to let you know more about this, if you wish.
    P.S. I am in no way promoting the course, I have nothing to do with BA. Just personal experience talking.

  17. You have described my own fear of flying exactly. Everything you say you feel and do, I am the same. It makes me feel better actually to know that I am not the only one and am not crazy. Thank you.

  18. Thank you for sharing these most personal of thoughts of yours! Although I personally have no fear of flying, I simply have not been able to sleep soundly on a plane – typically on a trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flight. And that is despite over 40 years of business travel! So when I get to my destination, I am usually exhausted and in need of rest – which I usually manage to re-capture by staying at some really nice, luxury hotels!

    Talking about these fears with your loyal readership/viewers and reading thru their comments may also help. But, whatever you do, please keep traveling and please keep posting your fantastic videos! They are much appreciated!

  19. Wow, I am truly surprise but relate very well to your situation as I too have a fear of flying triggered by a very scary approach and attempted landing at Belgrade airport during a snow storm. We eventually landed safely after the third attempt but I was never the same again. I live in New Zealand so visiting family (my wife is from Bosnia and Herzegovina) dictates that we fly and I also have found was to cope with my fear and can now endure the long haul flights. I also really like plane food and have no problem eating but find sleeping almost impossible. Love to travel though. Really enjoy your videos (along with Pro Tour Walks) Keep it up👍

  20. Interesting and informative! But, you do crack me up! 😊 As for me, I cannot fall asleep! Lol! I must be aware of what people are up to. Movement, noise from people keep me awake. Maybe I’m a flight guardian of some kind …
    Happy trails, dear LTE!!!

  21. I was very skeptical but finally tried EMDR therapy (used a lot for people with PTSD) for my extreme fear of flying and it actually worked. Really well. And if you know the trauma that engendered your fear (like a specific event) even better. Believe me, I had tried everything. It changed my life. And no, I’m not a therapist!

    Try to find someone and try to do it in person, if possible. I don’t know how well it would work virtually… but maybe.

  22. Yes, fear of flying is real. I too have this fear but have come to the point of, I have had a good life, if i go down, oh well. Once I am on the aircraft I figure it is out of my hands and just enjoy as best I can.

  23. Thank you for sharing. It is quite similar for me as well. I get moste nervous cruising, not getting up or down for some reason. The safest part of the journey, i am most nervous.
    As you describe, the fear can come and go without reasoning behind it. I hate it. I fly still 70 times a year and love it anyway- as much as i hate those moments that we all fear.

  24. I feel your pain! I was afraid of flying and avoided it for about 20 years. My fear came about when I was in my early 20s, flying with my infant daughter from England to Spain. There was no turbulence, but upon arriving to Malaga the plane failed to land for a long time. I understand now that the crew were probably circling around waiting for permission to land in a busy airport. However, the cockpit crew did not think it was important to let the passengers know. My baby was crying non-stop, I experienced my first panic attack that night. I wish most captains would understand how important it is to communicate with the passengers.
    Fast forward years later, and because I always loved to travel, I decided one day that enough was enough. I saw a psychologist who treated me by using gradual exposure therapy (pictures, biofeedback, etc.) and I was on a course of anti-anxiety medication. To help myself even more, I took a job in which I had to fly small planes at least twice a week. That was the cure.
    I also developed some coping strategies. I always get the aisle seat (don’t want to look out the window), I do eat everything on my tray (even the awful food), I have at least two glasses of wine, and I watch every film that interest me. I am a psychotherapist, and anxiety is so much more common that most people think; I heard so many patients say they thought they were “crazy” or the only ones experiencing these feelings.

  25. Thank you for sharing your advice and experience.The advice and suggestions on this list are quite useful and creative.

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