Flight risk: How to cope with a fear of flying

As crews search for the debris of MH 370 and emotional families wait for news of their loved ones, the reality of air travel has been made clearer than ever.

The perplexing disappearance of a Boeing 777 has proven things can go wrong 35,000 feet above the earth, despite the statistics showing air travel is extremely safe.

Jennifer Aniston is scared of flying.

Along with Whoopi Goldberg and Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston is another celebrity who is spooked by planes.   Photo: Getty

The story of the missing airliner has gripped the world, not only because it remains unsolved, raising questions about how a technology-laden aircraft could simply disappear.

It has struck a chord because everyone who travels by air is aware of the potential for disaster, no matter how remote it is.

Also called pteromerhanophobia, aerophobia or aviatophobia, fear of flying affects one in five people.

In fact, fear of flying may be a collection of phobias, including claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) and acrophobia (fear of heights). And while a fear of crashing is at the heart of it, a fear of vomiting, hijacking and even flying over water may contribute to it.

From average people visiting family interstate to Hollywood stars jetting around the world, if you are on a plane there are people nearby experiencing various degrees of terror. Jennifer Aniston has spoken about being terrified of planes after experiencing an electrical storm mid-air.

“You can’t get a big enough drink,” the actress told UK talk show Lorraine. “I’ve heard all about the aerodynamics, the speed, the engine. Maybe I’m just a control freak.”

According to private pilot Grace Slater, “Basically one person in every row on an aircraft would rather not be there, and that’s only including the people who get on the plane.”

Ms Slater runs Fearless Flyers ACT, an organisation dedicated to helping people eradicate their unnecessary terror. She learnt to fly 13 years ago to conquer her own uneasiness in the cabin.

“My husband was learning and I wasn’t a very good passenger,” Ms Slater recalls. “He said to me ‘You need to learn what this plane’s doing so you don’t react like that because it’s not fun.’ I started learning and loved it.”

According to Ms Slater, while many suffering from the phobia logically understand that flying is safe, they still irrationally fear specific elements of the experience.

“The most common fear is fear of turbulence, followed by lack of control and then claustrophobia,” Ms Slater explains. “You’re being put in a tin can and shot into the air, why wouldn’t you be scared?”

Unfortunately, a fear of flying tends to get worse before it gets better.

“People ask themselves why they get worse with every flight,” says Les Posen, a clinical psychologist who has specialised in fear of flying for over 20 years, “It goes against the grain. The more you do something the better you’re supposed to get, but really you’re just getting better at reacting. You’re conditioning your fear response.”

While a horrifically bumpy flight à la Miss Aniston may have first ignited your fear, now all it takes is a lit seatbelt sign for you to clam up.

If this sounds like you, Mr Posen urges you to remember that “In the eyes of your insurer, the most worrying part of your day ended the moment you stepped on that plane. Waking up to make a hot breakfast that morning, going to the bathroom in the dark or driving to the airport are all far more dangerous.”

How to cope

To avoid a Kristen Wiig-in-Bridesmaids moment, here are Mr Posen’s top tips for handling your flight anxiety.

medsMedication: If you have a flight on short notice, medication is a good option for temporarily suppressing a fear response. If you have a history of anxiety that has been successfully treated by medication, see your GP and explore your options. Before taking the medication on the plane, try it at home a few days earlier to see how you handle the side effects. “Medication is like a shock absorber in a car,” Mr Posen says, “It has its limitations. If you fly once a year it’s fine but it is not the way to go if you’re a frequent flyer.”

bookFly business: If you can afford to fly business, first or even premium economy, do it. “It’s not just the bigger seats,” says Mr Posen, “In general you have more air to breathe so you’re better able to regulate your physiology.” However, Mr Posen emphasises that splurging on a great seat is more of a management technique than a cure.

Loosen up: When things get bumpy, the natural instinct is to grip the seat and tense up. In reality, you’re just making things more stressful for yourself. Mr Posen tells his clients to put some upbeat music on and bounce along with the turbulence. “Give yourself some rhythm so you feel more in control,” he suggests. Have an upbeat playlist ready to go as well as a tranquil playlist for when you need some shut-eye.

airportBYO: “If you’re travelling economy you have to look after yourself,” Mr Posen says,”You can’t expect anything from the airline except getting you from A to B.” Supply your own food and entertainment so you feel more at home. If you plan on buying a book, Mr Posen strongly advises you to buy it a week before and start reading. That way, you will be so absorbed you’ll look forward to eight hours of reading.

Hang out at the airport: If you know you’ve got a flight coming up, make an effort to head to the airport a couple of times to desensitise yourself. Mimic being a passenger: Go stand at a gate or the check-in line, listen to the sounds, smell the odour and expose yourself to the airport environment so you know you can handle it.

cocoonSchedule your flight time: If it’s a long-haul trip, break up the flight into manageable blocks and give yourself a task for each section, like doing some work, reading a magazine or going for a walk around the cabin. According to Mr Posen, this makes the trip seem less daunting and ensures you keep busy.

Create your own space: “I say ‘This is my area of real estate on this plane’ and I cocoon myself,” Mr Posen explains. Put any unneeded items in the overhead locker to create space and elevate your feet to create the illusion of lying down. Make yourself cosy with socks, a blanket, noise-cancelling headphones and an eye mask and switch off.

If fear of flying is a problem for you, you can access private psychologists in your area by contacting the APS Find a Psychologists Service on the toll free number 1800 333 497 or conduct your own search on the APS website at

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