Do you have a fear of flying? As a former pilot and airline employee, I’ve taken thousands of flights during my lifetime. I love flying. For me there’s nothing more exhilarating than being thrown back into my seat as the engines roar into action and the plane accelerates down the runway, lifting gracefully into the air like a bird.
However, I understand that not everyone shares the same love for flying as I do. Simply reading the last paragraph could be enough to send you into a mild anxiety attack if you have a fear of flying. The good news is, you’re not alone. Approximately 43% of the travelling public experience some level of nervousness when flying.
FEAR OF FLYING IS COMMON
This is exactly how my friend Becky, founder of We Are Travel Girls, feels about flying. Yes, even someone like Becky, who travels for a living, whose father is a Pilot and mother is a former Flight Attendant, can still have a fear of flying. Every. Single. Time.
I recently flew with Becky to Morocco and while I would normally be enjoying every moment of take-off, sitting back with my headphones on and going into my happy place, Becky on the other hand, was quietly freaking out next to me! Each time the plane’s engine sounds changed, Becky would glare at me with a frightened look on her face and ask “What was that sound? Is that normal? Why did the engines just slow down? Are we falling out of the sky?”
If this sounds like you, then read on to learn some expert tips on combating your fear of flying from someone whose piloted hundreds of flights, to help you to best deal with the sometimes scary, but completely normal bumps and sounds onboard your next flight.
DO EVERYTHING IN YOUR POWER TO GET A SEAT UP THE FRONT OF THE PLANE
Think of a plane like a seesaw. If the plane is being controlled from the front, any small movement made from the front is felt with much greater emphasis down the back. The full effects of turning, landing and any other bumps are worst felt behind the aircraft’s centre of gravity. This is generally behind the wings or undercarriage.
In other words, if you’re sitting in the back of the plane, normal aircraft movements feel a lot more intense than when you’re sitting up the pointy end. Especially if you’re flying on a long-haul aircraft (the big planes with two aisles). I highly recommend doing whatever you can to get a seat up the front of the plane.
Now most of us probably can’t afford to buy a First or Business Class ticket, but obviously, this is the best spot sit in the plane. And not just because you’re a nervous flyer. However, if you’re stuck in Economy, be aware that airlines usually reserve the seats at the front of the Economy cabin for their frequent flyers, so this is just one of many good reasons to consider becoming loyal to a particular airline.
Most airlines nowadays have the ability to manage your flight online. As soon as you book, I recommend logging onto your airline’s website and reserve a seat as close to the front as possible. If you can’t pre-reserve your seat, be sure to get online as soon as the flight opens for online check-in (usually 24-48 hours before) to nab a front seat before everyone else beats you to it.
If all else fails, you can always try begging the check-in agent to move you somewhere up the front, but if the flight is full, it’s likely that most of the front seats will already be assigned to other passengers by the time check-in opens. Use this option as a last resort!
DISTRACT YOURSELF FROM YOUR FEAR OF FLYING
When Becky and I recently flew together, I was battling a bout of food poisoning and even though I was struggling to keep my food down, I was determined not to miss our flight to Morocco. During taxi, I wasn’t feeling good and as soon as the plane lifted off the ground, I had to quickly reach for the comfort bag. Before we knew it, we were at cruise altitude and Becky didn’t even have time to get anxious about all the bumps, turns and noises because she was too busy taking care of me.
Now I’m not suggesting that you try to find yourself a sick person to fly with… but any kind of distraction can help to divert your attention away from what’s going on around you. Nothing makes you more anxious than constantly thinking about the thing you’re anxious about.
Perhaps it’s a matter of putting on your headphones (noise-cancelling are best), listening to a meditation app or podcast, allowing your favourite music take you into a happy place, or reading a good book, or even having a chat with the person next to you. Whatever it may be, I recommend finding the thing that helps to distract you during the worst times of the flight to help with your fear of flying.
BOOK AN EARLY MORNING FLIGHT
As pilots, we love flying in the morning because the weather is almost always better – which means less work (flying around poor weather usually requires more concentration). As a nervous flyer, you’ll probably prefer it also, as morning flights are generally much smoother.
In the morning, the air is still cool from the night before and the earth hasn’t yet had time to warm up. As the sun rises, the air near the earth’s surface warms up and rises to mix with the cooler air above. This ‘mixing’ of air causes convection turbulence resulting in the ‘bumps’ you feel during a flight. The bumps are much less intense when the outside air temperature is cooler.
For this same reason, flying in the tropics can usually result in more moderate turbulence than in cooler climates. You could try to avoid flying in tropical regions, however, there are other types of turbulence that affect an aircraft, such as a jetstream or flying around mountainous regions, so you’re never going to be able to avoid turbulence completely. And would you really want to avoid going on a tropical beach vacation just to dodge the turbulence on the way there? Probably not.
REMEMBER THAT TURBULENCE IS ACTUALLY NORMAL, AND IT IS VERY SAFE
No plane has fallen out of the sky as a result of turbulence. Ever!
While a sudden drop during the flight can be a little startling, especially for someone with a fear of flying, it is actually very common, 100% completely normal and poses no danger to an aircraft, regardless of severity. There is usually no struggle on the pilot’s end to control an aircraft when flying through turbulence. In fact, aircraft are so well designed to handle turbulence, they will generally continue to fly on auto-pilot the entire time.
Also, aircraft are built with enough strength to withstand twice the amount of the most intense aircraft turbulence ever recorded. And the wings are bend tested to such a point where it’s almost impossible for them to ‘fall off’. Don’t worry – planes are built to last!
LET THE FLIGHT ATTENDANTS KNOW THAT YOU HAVE A FEAR OF FLYING
Guess what? You’re not the only person out there who are quietly freaking out onboard a flight. The flight attendants have probably dealt with hundreds or thousands of nervous flyers during their career. And unless you’re really good a hiding it, they probably already picked up on your darting eyes, elevated mood and sweaty palms during boarding.
It never hurts to have a quick chat with a flight attendant to let them know about your fear of flying. While flight attendants are not allowed to hand out any medication, even the over-the-counter stuff, they can certainly keep an eye on you. Their job is to take care of you.
Often if something happens during the flight, or it’s a particularly bumpy ride, the flight attendants will probably come and check on you to make sure you’re doing okay. Sometimes this can be reassuring, especially if you’re flying solo.
TRUST THE PILOT
Airline pilots train for years before they get to be in control of an aircraft that carries hundreds of passengers. Airlines know that the pilot is the most important person in ensuring an aircraft is flown safely. That’s why they invest a lot of money in training their pilots before they are put in charge of an aircraft.
Most airlines would go broke after a major catastrophe. It’s in their best interest to put a huge emphasis on flight safety. Not to mention that airlines are also very heavily regulated by government and international bodies.
When I was working for an airline, our pilots would undergo checks every 3-6 months and conduct training in a simulator every other month. Most of their simulator training involves going through every type of emergency situation possible, in a safe environment. And we did this religiously!
Although emergency situations are very rare in a plane, when they do happen, the pilots are very well trained in how to deal with them. I know it’s hard to do if you have a fear of flying but try to trust that your pilots know what they’re doing!
IF YOU HAVE A FEAR OF FLYING, DON’T WATCH AIR CRASH INVESTIGATIONS!
Seriously, what’s the point. Are you trying to torment yourself?
The reason why shows like this exist is to provide drama and entertainment. They are ridiculously embellished stories with re-enactments added for dramatic effect. When in fact, many of the accidents that have occurred throughout history have paved the way for changes within the industry. Quite often, safety measures have been put in place to minimize the risk of these accidents ever occurring again.
If you’re a nervous flyer, you’re probably very interested in these shows and might think that watching them will help calm your anxiety, but it can actually have a negative effect on your mental state.
The same goes for reading about aircraft incidents in the news. Don’t allow yourself to scrutinize over fear-mongering headlines like “Aircraft Forced to Make Emergency Landing at Dallas Airport” that are designed to catch your attention. As a pilot I can guarantee, of the hundreds of news articles I’ve read about aircraft incidents, the majority of the journalists get the facts completely wrong. They are not experts on flying planes! And they never write articles about the hundreds of thousands of flights that land safely without incident on a daily basis.
PICK AN AIRLINE WITH A GOOD SAFETY RATING
Not all airlines are created equal. Some are better than others. In Australia, our airlines have a near perfect safety record – with Qantas holding the long-standing record for the airline with the best safety record in the world. Just ask Rain Man. They have never had a fatality or lost an aircraft.
But for anyone living outside Australia, choosing to fly on Qantas is probably not an option. The good news is, there are plenty of other airlines around the world with great safety records also. Here are some tips for picking a good one.
- Do your research. Check out AirlineRatings.com and have a look at the safety record of the airline you are considering flying on. Airlines with a safety rating of 7/7 are considered the safest to fly.
- Flying on legacy airlines (full-service carriers) is usually the best choice. Think Singapore Airlines, United, American Airlines, Lufthansa, British Airways, Emirates and many more. Their airfares are generally a little pricier, but with more money behind them, these airlines can afford to invest in not only better products and services, but also more training for their pilots. They also tend to invest in better technology.
- Some budget airlines can be a good option too. But tread carefully. These days many low-cost airlines offer brand new aircraft and very efficient operations without cutting corners on safety. But I would recommend you always check out their safety record on AirlineRatings.com before booking with a low-cost carrier.
- Where you fly to can also be a factor. Some regions of the world with a high density of third-world countries tend to have poorer airport infrastructure, runways, radio equipment and landing aids. They are also generally less regulated than modernized regions. Statistically speaking, the safest regions in the world to fly are the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
REMIND YOURSELF OF THE FACTS ABOUT FLYING SAFETY
You’ve heard it all before – airline travel is safer than any other mode of transportation. You’re more likely to be killed in a car accident or shark attack, or the common flu. The probability of an aircraft crashing is around 1 in 5.4 million (according to The Economist).
There is actually an iPhone app that uses facts and risk predictors to assess the probability of your aircraft going down. WTF? Yes, that’s right. It’s called “Am I Going Down?” The app aims to show the general travelling public just how rare aircraft crashes actually are, in spite of what you see on the news headlines.
So, when you find yourself freaking out while on your next flight, just relax and remember, millions of people are flying through the air safely every day. And if all else fails, download the app to check just how safe you really are.
SHOULD YOU DRINK TO CALM YOUR FEAR OF FLYING?
This is a contentious one. Alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system and many people find that having an alcoholic drink may help to calm their fear of flying. But there is also some evidence to suggest that drinking heavily or over a long period of time, can actually increase your anxiety.
I’m not a doctor, so I can’t tell you whether or not it’s okay to drink alcohol to help your flying anxiety. It’s completely your choice. But if you do find yourself regularly tuning to alcohol to deal with your fear of flying, perhaps you should discuss other options with your doctor.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST – CONSIDER DOING A FEAR OF FLYING COURSE
Sometimes it’s reassuring to know that you are not alone. Experiencing a fear of flying has actually become so common that there are now many companies out there educating individuals on how to overcome the fear of flying. There are also many phone apps available that can help you master the fear of flying by providing tips and meditation audio tracks. Many airlines offer their own fear of flying courses, including Virgin Atlantic and British Airways.
So, if you’re determined to travel the world – I’m going to assume you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t – then try out some of the tips in this article, and if all else fails, it may be worth finding a ‘fear of flying’ course provider before your next big trip.
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to conquer your fear of flying. If you have any questions or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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