How to Get Over Your Irrational Fear of Flying

Commercial air travel is bad enough for all of us, but for those with aviophobia, it’s a one-way flight to hell

Ahh, the miracle of flight: Being hurtled over land or sea in a thin aluminum tube, at an altitude so high you can’t breathe the air, as the whole plane periodically shakes so violently without warning that you can’t even stand up (not to mention tiny, smelly bathrooms, unpalatable snacks and all those therapy pets). For those afraid of flying, the whole notion of air travel is more like epic terror: Aviophobia is the fourth most common phobia, and given the harsh realities of air travel, it’s almost a surprise it’s not even more common.

If you’ve ever experienced violent turbulence in your bowels at 40,000 feet, try and take solace from what follows.

Gabriel Jebb, hang-gliding and paragliding pilot/senior flight instructor: Honestly, one of the reasons I got into this was, as a young kid, I was incredibly terrified of heights. We had a two-story house and I don’t think I ever went to the second story the whole eight or nine years we lived there. I didn’t have a fear of flying though, and I didn’t have a fear of being 10,000 feet up in the air. I think what most people have isn’t a fear of flying — they have a fear of falling. But when you’re up high, with a paraglider and hang glider, you know you’re 100 percent in control, so you know it’s not just gonna come plummeting out of the sky.

For example, I’ve BASE jumped off the Petronas Towers. As I was going up the elevator, I was terrified, but as soon as I got out on the platform with my BASE rig on, I felt totally comfortable because, again, I knew I was gonna be in control. If the building fell over, I knew I could get away from it.

We do tens of thousands of tandem flights a year. Personally, I probably do 1,200 to 1,800 tandems of them, and I’d say probably 10 percent of the people I take up say they’re afraid of heights. But once they get up there, it takes them about two minutes and they’re not afraid anymore.

There’s a lot of different types of flying, and I think hang gliding or paragliding is one of the unique forms of flying where you can just walk off the side of the mountain up into the sky. And for people that are afraid, it might be an easier start than even an airplane, where there’s cabin pressurization, turbulence, you can’t see around you and all that — whereas I think free flight is a much easier entry into being able to fly or not.

Dr. Kevin Chapman, anxiety therapist: Part of the fear of flying is the lack of control, of not actually flying the plane. That’s what undergirds most anxiety disorders generally: We construe anxiety as a future-oriented emotion that involves thoughts of uncontrollability and unpredictability of future events.

Like treatment for most other phobias, we use cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as exposure therapy, where you work up a hierarchy — at the top is taking an actual flight. I use virtual reality therapy, which is very therapeutically supported. You basically put a person in a virtual environment to prepare them for the flight, and you, the clinician, can control the plane. You can make the pilot come on and talk about turbulence, turn on the fasten the seatbelt sign, navigate the airport, go to the terminal, walk down the tarmac, all of that. Research definitely supports the effectiveness of it.  

Paul Hudson, president, There’s been a lot of research done on fear of flying — it’s often also associated with claustrophobia. There are treatments for it, and it’s not particularly rational on a statistical basis, considering the safety record of flying these days, at least with commercial airlines.

And so, we’re looking at other phobias that often involve airline passengers: Things like animals being carried on airplanes. Some people have a fear of dogs, and in an airplane, there’s no way to walk away. When you also have overcrowded planes, we think that may aggravate some of these conditions. During most of the history of aviation, planes used to have 50 to 60 percent of the seats vacant. Now they’re 80 percent or more occupied.

It didn’t start to get overcrowded until the airlines all started merging around 2010. What happened is they reduced the number of flights: It used to be that when flights got popular, airlines would simply add more flights. But now that we’re down to only four major carriers, they’re able to restrict the supply to keep the airplanes full — they call it “capacity discipline.” That, in turn, makes everyone more uncomfortable.

We think it could be useful for airlines to have programs to help people to overcome their anxieties. But right now, the burden of this falls on the individuals — the airlines aren’t going to take care of the problem for you. You’d think they’d want to, but in general, comfort and customer service aren’t what oligopolies and monopolies do. They’re normally oriented to giving you less service, and higher prices.

Airplane structural engineer of 40 years, who works for an aerospace company: What do I think when people tell me they’re afraid of flying? I don’t blame ’em! As an engineer, I know we’re gonna go 500 miles an hour, seven miles above the earth, in a tin can whose skin is about the thickness of a dime. That’s not a sane thing to do! Most of us should be afraid.

So how is it they don’t go down more often, given the physical realities? We’ll spend hundreds of hours designing a single bolt connection on an airplane — you won’t see this in any other manufacturing, even a car. Every airplane model has a complete static test, and we find out the breaking point for everything. There’s a certain jumbo jet whose wings are so flexible it looks like they can touch over the fuselage. So it’s not only that we understand it’s strong; it’s that we understand how strong it is. We predict where it’s gonna break. And it’s a fun game, because the engineers are taking side bets — there’s usually a dinner resting on who gets the closest to the actual load that it breaks at, and we’re guessing within half a percent of when it’ll break.

We also run a full fatigue test of what would be about 50 years worth of flying. Anything that goes wrong gets corrected in subsequent aircraft, at significant expense. When we finally roll out an airplane we establish a maintenance program, and every time an operator finds something that didn’t work quite right, we roll back into production. You don’t see that in any other comparable industry.

Plus, there’s a very active regulatory agency: The FAA is the regulatory agency in the world. They have the technical wherewithal, there’s a testing center that does a tremendous amount of investigating work, and on top of that there’s the wonderful folks at the NTSB who, when something does go drastically wrong, they tell us what critical and catastrophic thing was missed. So the industry-level effort to maintain aviation safety is tremendous. It’s hard to compare it to what you see in the automobile.

Then there’s pilot certification. Imagine if, when you wanted to get a driver’s license, you’d needed a thousand hours’ worth of student driving time before they let you go out on a drive by yourself; they continually audited you for drug and alcohol use; every year you get a medical exam; if you don’t have easily corrected vision you’d drop out; and there was an age limit.

I suspect the bigger issue with a fear of flying is that you’re not in control. In a car, you’re very familiar with operating it even if you’re the passenger, and so, you have this sense of, “I know what’s going on.” It’s interesting that we’re relaxed being in a car when, statistically, you’re at a whole lot more risk of injury or fatality than you are in a commercial airplane. Maybe if we all got our pilot’s license and understood the processes of accelerating, taking off, rolling, climbing, cruising and all those different things that are going to happen, I suspect you’d be a lot more relaxed. But it costs a couple hundred thousand to get your commercial pilot license.

I’m curious, if you had a two-hour course that walked through design and testing, and what a pilot’s doing, so all the funny noises (gears coming, flaps opening) make sense. Not to mention all the redundancy: We can do a full takeoff with one engine; there’s two pilots in case one passes out; and so on. Maybe if you were to teach somebody that, that would really lower their fear level and they’d have this understanding of, wow, you’re really in a protected environment when you fly.

Although I’m not sure any of that actually goes very far in the human psyche. You’re probably better off ordering two tequilas and calling it a day.