Fear of Flying—Does It Keep You Grounded?
“LADIES and gentlemen, flight number 210 is now boarding.” Several hundred passengers make a last-minute scramble for carry-on luggage and newly purchased newspapers and magazines. Friends and relatives bring a lump to their throats with loving farewells and embraces as the passengers prepare to board the waiting plane.
Minutes later the purring sensation of four giant jet engines, each taller than a man, can be felt inside the plane. Spinning and coming alive, they produce over 100,000 thrust horsepower. The plane carries 311,000 pounds or 155.5 tons of fuel—enough fuel, 47,000 gallons, to fill a suburban swimming pool!
From the boarding ramp, the relatively quiet, cushioned ride to the assigned runway begins. Waiting for their turn for takeoff clearance from the control tower, the cockpit crew go through their long list of equipment checks. Finally it’s all systems go! “Flight number 210, you are cleared for takeoff.” The pilot pushes the throttles forward. “We’re rolling.” The passengers are pushed back in their seats as the plane streaks forward. Soon the pilot pulls back on the control column, lifting the aircraft’s nose. The ground suddenly disappears from sight, and in a short time the plane has reached its preassigned altitude of 37,000 feet [11,300 m] and a cruising speed of over 550 mph [885 km]. In a few short hours, the hundreds of passengers will have safely reached their destination—thousands of miles away.
But alas, not all is well! There are those too frightened even to look out the window. They stare straight ahead, as if in a vise. There are those with sweaty palms and white knuckles, gripping seat arms tightly. Their heart is racing, their stomach is in knots. Some are overtaken with nausea. No need to read or look at pictures. It will do little good.
Not all flying phobias have the same root cause. What affects one may not affect another. There is fear of heights, of flying over water, of crowds, of being closed in, of death, and others.
Widespread Fear of Flying
Hundreds of people spend days driving in cars or traveling on trains because they are afraid of flying. It is estimated that in the United States alone, over 25 million people are afraid to fly—one out of every six adults. Worldwide, the number of fearful flyers soars even higher. Fear of flying is estimated to have cost the domestic air-travel industry 21.2 million one-way trips, 6 million business trips and 15.2 million personal trips, resulting in an annual revenue loss of 1.6 billion dollars.
When some fearful flyers were asked by a former airline pilot if they worry when a relative or close friend flies, they almost always said no. One fearful-flyer counselor said at a seminar: “When I ask my patients, ‘Would you let me get on a plane next week?’ they always say, ‘Of course, sure.’ And I ask, ‘Why? Don’t you care if I die?’ They always laugh and say, ‘You’re not going to die.’” Another counselor said: “I have frequently asked patients, ‘How many people do you know who died as a result of an airplane accident?’ Usually none. ‘How many people do you know who died as a result of a car accident?’ Usually two or three.”
Why the Fear?
Statistics and experts agree that the modern jetliner is an extraordinarily safe means of transportation. Insurance actuaries, whose job it is to calculate insurance risk and premiums, say that if you are going from coast to coast, it is about six times safer if you fly than if you drive. Aircraft crew members are quick to point out that the most dangerous part of the trip is not the flight but the trip to and from the airport.
With air travel now at its highest peak ever, what is making some people fearful of flying? (Even though many men are reluctant to admit it, it is estimated that of those afraid to fly, the split is about fifty-fifty, male to female.) They attribute their fear of flying to the excessive media coverage of aircraft accidents, with days of follow-up stories, and to the number of skyjackings taking place. Also, reports of near midair collisions, crowded skies, and fewer air-traffic controllers cause them to board an airplane with trepidation. Nevertheless, facts and figures continue to favor air travel as a relatively safe means of transportation.
What a Fearful Flyer Can Do
To begin with, in recent years a number of major airlines have tried to educate fearful flyers about the safety of air travel. Seminars have been conducted in many principal cities of the world by airline pilots, crew members, and practicing clinical psychologists. The cost for each student is about $200, U.S., plus the cost of the ticket for the graduation flight. The sessions consist of question-and-answer programs, on-site airport familiarization and desensitization, and finally the graduation flight itself.
Said one seminar instructor: “Ninety percent of the people we deal with have flown. Of these, half have stopped flying because of their fear, and half are continuing to fly, but are miserable doing it. Only 10% of the people in our seminars have never flown.” According to reports, these seminars have successfully helped thousands of fearful flyers, or fearful nonflyers, to become comfortable with flying.
Since attending a seminar is not possible for everyone who must board a plane, possibly for an emergency flight, here are some suggestions offered by seminar counselors. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport. Last-minute arrival and rushing to board the plane can increase your anxiety. “I usually tell them not to sit in the very last seats,” said one counselor. “It’s more uncomfortable and the airplane sways more.” The front of the plane is smoother and quieter. However, since these seats are first class, and many do not wish to pay the extra money, the second-best choice is over the wing. If looking out the window bothers you, choose a seat away from the window. “After settling into the seat, do . . . deep breathing exercises,” advises The Air Traveler’s Handbook. “This singular procedure has worked effectively even for the most sceptical. Do it with your eyes closed. Turn inward for the strength that is waiting to be tapped. . . . As soon as possible stand up and stretch. Move about the cabin.”
“It’s important to tell people who are frightened that alcohol doesn’t help,” cautions a seminar counselor. “At 5,000-foot atmospheric pressure, that drink is worth a drink and a half. Also, the alcohol desiccates [dries up] the nervous system, desiccates the mucous membranes, makes them uncomfortable, may make them more sensitive to motion, may make them sick, and may end up traumatizing them.”
“Holding rigidly onto the seat,” said another, “is one of the worst things to do.” Instead, place a pillow at your back. It will help to relax you.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’re beginning our descent and will be landing shortly. Thank you for flying our airline.” Minutes later the muffled sound of landing gear coming down can be heard. The pilot has received clearance for landing. The runway is straight ahead. We are coming in, and the pilot raises the plane’s nose slightly. The concrete runway makes its appearance beneath our window—and we touch down! The engines roar as the pilot reverses the thrust to slow the plane down, and finally the giant plane comes to a halt at the terminal. Another successful flight!
[Picture Credit Line on page 23]
Trans World Airlines photo