For Adelle Hopper, it was a disastrous trip to Ibiza that made her realise she had to do something. “I’ve always been claustrophobic,” she says. “I don’t like any enclosed space and I don’t get on the Tube. But I’d always just about managed to deal with boarding a plane.” That was until she had a panic attack at Ibiza Airport, and ended up travelling back to the UK the long way — first by ferry and then overland.
Adelle, who works in marketing for ITV, knew her fear of flying could end up ruining her honeymoon. “We want to do the Trans-Siberian railway, and that means flying back from Beijing. I have to be sure I can do it, as getting back overland from there would be much more difficult. So I went on Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course to help me try and get over the problem.”
For Sarah Lock, who teaches children that have been excluded from schools in Brighton, the fear of flying kicked in when she had children — something that is surprisingly common. “I was fine for years and went off flying round the world,” she says. “But having children suddenly made me aware of my own mortality. If I die, they’re not going to have me there for them.”
She says her fear started to get worse with every flight, to the point where she’d be in tears if she had to get on a plane. She was also worried about passing on that fear to her own children. “Their dad is Norwegian and I didn’t want them to get to the stage I was at over flying to Norway for a couple of days.” So in February 2014, ahead of a flight to Italy just a few days later, she decided to try out the British Airways Flying With Confidence programme. Over 40,000 people have attended the one-day primary course since it launched 28 years ago.
Captain Steve Allright, who runs the BA scheme, says every person’s fear is slightly different. “For some people, it’s about lack of control, for others it’s claustrophobia,” he says. “But people do split into certain categories, such as those who are more concerned about safety, or those who are fretting about having a panic attack on board. Over the years, we have seen every possible variation.
“We get people who want to go on holiday and those who travel for work — and many more besides. We’ve helped people from ages five to 95, male and female, and from all socio-economic groups. There are people who have never flown, who haven’t flown for decades, or regular business travellers for whom the phobia is starting to build. Many people who have avoided flying for many years suddenly find they have to fly for business, or to see a new grandchild halfway round the world.”
The Virgin and BA courses — as well as those run in affiliation with other airlines — help out thousands of nervous flyers, including children, every year. They broadly follow the same pattern. The first part of the day deals with the technical side of things, with pilots explaining what the noises on a plane are and detailing how rigorous their training is. Much of this is about clearing up misconceptions — a plane can’t just drop out of the sky.
Cycle of bad habits
Paul Tizzard, who operates the Virgin programme, offers this advice: “Try writing down all the things you’re worried about. The pilots are drilled twice a year in simulations on all of them. How many people do you know who are tested on the job to such an extent?”
Answering questions about the mechanics of how things work, and addressing specific qualms helps cultivate the right mindset. A lot of the mystery and fear of the unknown goes, to be replaced by facts that are much more (helpfully) mundane. For example, during turbulence, the plane moves less than a normal bus or train does, and training standards for pilots, cabin crew, air traffic controllers and aircraft engineers are rigorously high.
Tizzard says: “Perceived risk and actual risk are very different. The fear is not irrational — it’s rational based on an incorrect risk assessment. It’s about changing your thought pattern so your body and brain don’t need to react like that. We help people use the logical part of their brain rather than the primitive ‘fight or flight’ part.”
Not letting it get to the stage where fight or flight kicks in is dealt with in the second, more psychological section of the courses. Here, the physiology of how the body reacts to fear, and how to control it, are addressed. Various techniques are suggested, including controlled deep breathing and visualising oneself running into the arms of loved ones after the plane has safely landed.
And a safe landing is the final part of the day. Everything builds up to a short flight and, perhaps surprisingly, almost everybody who attends the course ends up getting on it. Adelle Hopper says she felt she’d broken the cycle of bad habits by the time she boarded. “Knowing more about how planes work really helped — I wasn’t obsessing about the tiny details,” she says. “And I could use the techniques I’d been taught to relax.”
For Sarah Lock, the feeling of camaraderie helped, too. “It’s nice to sit with other people who are scared and whom you can relate to. You realise it’s not just you,” she says. “Everyone got on the plane, including those who swore they wouldn’t. A couple of people started crying immediately and we had to wait until they could be coaxed on. But there was definitely a sense that we were all in the same boat.”
Using the breathing techniques and thinking about the mechanics of the plane, Lock says she was surprisingly calm on the 45-minute flight from Heathrow to Southampton. “It was the first time in 12 years that I was on a plane and my heart wasn’t beating fast,” she says. “The pilots explained every single noise — like the wheels going up. Everything I wanted to know, I had an answer for. And flying felt like it did before I had children.”
Safer than ever
Statistically, there has never been a safer era in aviation history. According to figures from the Flight Safety Foundation — an international charity organisation that provides impartial, expert safety guidance and resources for the aviation and aerospace industry — just 265 people died in passenger plane accidents worldwide (31 million flights) in 2013. That’s the lowest since World War II.
By comparison, those numbers were regularly above 1,500 a year in the 1970s and in the thousands during the 1990s. Given that, according to Boeing’s statistics, planes spent a total of 52.8 million hours in the air in 2013 as opposed to less than half that time in 1993, it’s clear there have been dramatic improvements in air safety. It’s also worth pointing out that almost all fatal accidents involve small airlines on the EU blacklist (see More Info box below).
Engine design, back-up safety mechanisms and navigation technology have greatly improved over the last 20 years. And when planes do crash, the investigations lead to newer, more stringent procedures to stop the combination of events that led to the crash from ever happening again.
However, statistical safety comparisons to other modes of transport should be treated with hefty fistfuls of salt, as accurate global figures just don’t exist. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.2 million people a year (including drivers, cyclists and pedestrians) die in road traffic accidents, but there’s no way of comparing the number of journeys taken.
An awful lot also depends on the measurements used. For example, the National Safety Council in the US measures in deaths per hundred million miles travelled per passenger. When done that way, cars score 0.48, buses 0.06, trains 0.03 and planes 0.00 — you need to go beyond two decimal places to get anything to register. But obviously planes cover greater distances, and this skews the figures somewhat.
Perhaps surprisingly, Paul Tizzard says the fear of flying courses don’t go into safety statistics. “It doesn’t work,” he says. “Fear is in a much more primitive part of the brain. Something is perceived as a threat, and the brain does what it has always done — it tries to protect you.”
One way of rewiring the brain in relation to flight fright is undergoing hypnosis. Take photographer Simon Way, whose fear of flying started to develop in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He decided to undergo hypnotherapy sessions to help change his thought processes. “I began to accept my lack of control because pilots have both a much better idea of what’s going on and a vested interest in landing safely,” he says.
He admits that he still has the odd pang of fear, but takes a relaxation tape given to him by his hypnotherapist to help calm himself, if needed. “Ultimately, the flight becomes a chance to switch off and relax,” he adds.
London-based Harley Street hypnotherapist Chloe Brotheridge says she often finds that the fear is linked to a certain event filed away in the subconscious. “I take people back through their memories,” she explains. “It might be that a parent had a fear of flying, or there was an incident when the oxygen masks came down as a child.”
She also uses a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) technique that gets clients to visualise themselves in the process of going through the airport, getting on a plane and landing safely. “It’s like sitting at the back of the cinema watching yourself on a screen, and we can rewind and repeat sections,” says Brotheridge. “We can make it silly — imagining circus-style music playing or everyone else being in clown costumes. But the process is about dissociating.”
Distance yourself from it, look on it as an impassive observer, and a lot of the emotion driving the fear goes away. “But everyone is different,” Brotheridge adds. “Sometimes people need to try a few different things. It’s not like waving a magic wand and you’re cured.”
Flying Without Fear’s Paul Tizzard agrees. “The best therapy is whatever works,” he says. “You don’t have to like turbulence or landing or the pressure in your ears on take-off. You just have to be comfortable in the knowledge that you’re safe — and if it’s simply a case of finding a coping mechanism that allows you to treat the flight as the means to an end, so be it.”
Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear courses take place at various airports throughout the year, costing £255 for the premium version that includes the flight at the end of the day. flyingwithoutfear.co.uk
British Airways’ Flying With Confidence courses cost £295 at Heathrow, £275 at Gatwick and £195 at Edinburgh. These also include a short concluding flight. flyingwithconfidence.com
Chloe Brotheridge’s Easy Way To Change hypnotherapy sessions for fear of flying and other phobias. easywaytochange.co.uk
Flying With Confidence: The Proven Programme To Fix Your Flying Fears by Capt Steve Allright and Patricia Furness-Smith. RRP £10 (Ebury Digital for Kindle).
Flying Without Fear: 101 Fear Of Flying Questions Answered by Paul Tizzard and Paul Conway. RRP £14.99 (Flying Without Fear Publishing).
Overcome Your Fear Of Flying by Robert Bor. RRP £7.99 (Sheldon Press)
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)