Flying can be a rather stressful activity. You’re boxed in a tight, closed space for several hours on end with people who may or may not have a cold, the flu, or Ebola, and every few hours you’re hit by a round of inexplicably unnerving turbulence. To add insult to our mental injury, we’ve had to overcome the fear surrounding our highly publicized year of aviation tragedies and anomalies, such as the disappearance of MH370, the shooting down of MH17, and the fatal demise of Virgin Galactic‘s VSS Enterprise. While it’s no wonder flight anxiety is on the rise, commercial pilot and licensed therapist Captain Tom Bunn explains why travelers shouldn’t be afraid to fly.
For anxious flyers, what should have been one of the best of years of travel has been one of the worst. Since 2002, no U.S. airline has caused a passenger fatality. However, things that have happened outside the U.S. have thrown anxious flyers for a loop.
Those of us in the industry recognize that flying is safer in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand than it is in other areas. In these countries, airlines follow well-developed methods to ensure safety. All major airports are equipped with modern navigation systems that guide planes down to touchdown on the runway with great accuracy. Planes are tracked on airways by radar. As a backup, planes are equipped with devices that prevent mid-air collisions even if air traffic control makes a mistake. Other cockpit systems keep pilots from making navigational errors.
If an accident were to happen in one of these countries, it would—at least initially—seem inexplicable. Every past accident has led to measures to make sure that kind of accident cannot happen again.
Anxious flyers who are generally not part of the aviation industry may not understand that when a crash happens in some other parts of the world, it has no bearing whatsoever on the safety in areas where aviation is thoroughly up to date.
In addition, anxious flyers tend to avoid thinking about such details. They feel better when they can keep flying out of mind. In extreme cases, phobia keeps the person from looking skyward for fear they might panic at the unwanted sight of an airplane.
As one of the worst of years, the unthinkable happened: a plane simply vanished, and did so almost without a trace. All that was seen of it were a few blips on a radar screen as it ventured unaccountably off course, and all that was heard was a “handshake” signal to an information system the airline did not subscribe to.
I’m referring of course to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and to the disbelief that in our day and time an airliner can just disappear. The reaction from both anxious and confident flyers has been the same: “That just can’t happen.”
Eyes stayed glued on cable television waiting for the thing that just can’t happen to “unhappen.” We needed to find that plane, for unless the unthinkable could be replaced with the thinkable, how could a person get psychological closure.
Anxious flyers said they were simply not going to fly again until the plane was found. There was a primal fear that if it happened to those people on board that flight, it could happen to me.
This is the crux of flight phobia. If fear is going to be ruled out, the possibility of disaster has to be ruled out. It does not seem that it matters whether a crash happens in one flight in a thousand, a million, or a billion. What matters is encapsulated in the statement, “planes crash, and since they do, if I get on one, it can happen to me.” It doesn’t matter to the anxious flyer how rare disaster is. It matters that disaster is possible.
This is where the border exists between phobia and non-phobia. A non-phobic can choose to stop thinking about possible disaster because it is improbable. If something awful is possible, the phobic flyer cannot stop thinking about it. Thinking about it, of course, triggers the release of stress hormones. Stress hormones, in turn, keep the mind focused on it.
The impossible quest is absolute safety. Without absolutes, the phobic cannot rest. Since absolute safety does not exist in aviation, the phobic’s mind cannot rest in the air. So, being in the air is ruled out.
Even though surface travel is not absolutely safe, the phobic’s mind is relieved by the idea that if something bad happens, they may be able to walk away from it.
As anxious flyers were reeling from Malaysia 370, there was Malaysia Flight 17. Still searching for closure, and searching in vain, another plane flown by the same airline, probably an airline was shot out of the sky.
Again, another thing that can’t happen happened. It begins to be easier to see how the mind is undermined. When things repeatedly happen that can’t happen, there is nothing a person can count on.
Many having given up on aviation forever were not surprised when an Air Algeria plane went off course, disappeared from radar, and crashed in “bad weather” in Mali.
When these events were capped off recently with the crash of an experimental spacecraft, messages on Twitter expressed hope, for the fear they had long considered irrational had been validated as making perfect sense.
How do I deal with this as a therapist and pilot? I asked people to consider automobile racing. When there is a crash at the track, do they fear driving on the road? No. Of course not. They know racing is different. I ask them to consider that they should understand that airline operations are vastly different in different parts of the world.
When a crash happens to an airline that they had never heard of before, they should ignore it. A crash in some part of the world where they would never fly means nothing about flying in the part of the world where they do fly. Military crashes need to be removed from concern; a military crash means nothing about the safety of flying on an established airline. Plus, flying experimental aircraft, riskier than automobile racing, is meaningless when it comes to airline flying.
So, put the worst of the year’s events into context. In spite of the notion that “planes do crash,” you do have to go back to November 2001 to find one that belonged to a major U.S. airline.
That may not be absolute safety, but if there is anything you could be doing right now that is safer than being on a modern U.S. airliner, I don’t know what it might be. Statistically, if you grab the “red eye” tonight from L.A. or San Francisco to New York, you will be safer sleeping on the plane than sleeping in your own bed.
For more flying advice from Captain Tom Bunn, check out:
- A Pilot’s Secrets to Conquering Your Fear of Flying
- The JetBlue Emergency Landing: A Pilot’s Perspective
- Afraid to Speak Up? Cockpit Politics & Asiana 214 Crash
- A Pilot’s Perspective on the Disappearance of MH370
By Captain Tom Bunn for PeterGreenberg.com. Tom Bunn is the founder of SOAR (www.fearofflying.com), and the author of SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. Order your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble.