Thin air

A mod­ern and in­creas­ing ne­ces­sity, air travel in­flicts an ar­du­ous jour­ney upon the trav­eller with a fear of fly­ing, but it can be beaten, writes Alice Bir­rell. Art­work by Jim Dar­ling.

VOGUE Australia - - Beauty -

It is 3.30am on a Fri­day and my par­ents have wo­ken me up. With­out a sec­ond’s hes­i­ta­tion – there is no iPhone alarm to snooze – I bail my­self out of bed to get dressed and brush my teeth. I’m 10 years old, feel­ing nau­seous from the early hour, and a van is com­ing to take us to the air­port, which is a 45-minute drive through the dark streets. I am a jan­gling mass of ex­cite­ment. We have fam­ily round-the-world tick­ets for a six-week trip of a life­time, a time that is as with­out end for a 10-year-old as it is for a work­ing adult, and we are to catch a plane to our first port of call in a sched­ule that in­cludes Eng­land, France, New York and on to Dis­ney­land. I can’t eat a bite of break­fast.

It’s nearly two decades later and I am sweaty-handed, fum­bling with the head­phone connection to lis­ten to an an­nounce­ment about the weather for the flight ahead on a solo work trip from Tokyo back home to Syd­ney, and I am al­most in tears be­cause I missed what the pi­lot said. Did he say cy­clone? Surely not through it? Around it? Can you go around? It didn’t look pos­si­ble when I saw the con­ti­nent-sized snarling mass on the news. Din­ner is served and I don’t eat a bite.

There ex­ists two par­al­lel worlds in this life – yours: easy, some­times stress­ful plane trips; and mine: a tense, dark place that ex­ists after the doors are armed, a place stud­ded with bouts of blood­cur­dling fear at the chime of the seat­belt light. A kind of real-world Up­side Down that roughly one in six peo­ple have ex­pe­ri­enced. The Na­tional Institute of Men­tal Health in Amer­ica es­ti­mates that as high as a quar­ter of the US pop­u­la­tion has ex­pe­ri­enced flight-re­lated anx­i­ety. It seems quite fea­si­ble then that we have ei­ther trav­elled with, are, or might yet be­come this kind of flyer.

With air travel on the rise, up from two bil­lion peo­ple in 2006 to 3.8 bil­lion in 2016, flight-re­lated anx­i­ety is harder to dis­miss as some­thing to be dealt with only when it oc­curs. For me, board­ing planes fre­quently for work meant some­thing had to be done, ef­fi­ciently and ef­fec­tively. As though ap­proach­ing a writ­ing as­sign­ment, I be­gan to re­search. First, bad news was in store: se­vere tur­bu­lence is on the rise as sci­ence links tu­mul­tuous jet streams – me­an­der­ing rivulets of cool and warm air rush­ing around up there – to global warm­ing. If, like me, you are a woman, the news gets worse. A study led by Boe­ing re­vealed women are twice as likely as men to ex­pe­ri­ence fear of fly­ing.

Psy­chol­o­gists have ob­served a pe­cu­liar­ity of this type of pho­bia; it can tend to de­velop as we get older. Peru­vian nov­el­ist Mario Var­gas Llosa wrote that “fear of fly­ing wells up sud­denly, when peo­ple not lack­ing in imag­i­na­tion and sen­si­tiv­ity re­alise that they are 30,000 feet in the air, trav­el­ling through clouds at 800 miles an hour, and ask: ‘What the hell am I do­ing here?’ and be­gin to trem­ble.” Mor­tal­ity salience – our aware­ness that death is in­evitable – has long been ob­served as com­ing about as we age, and this was true for me, when some­where be­tween the ages of 10 and 29, I shifted into the sphere of fear. For some it be­comes pro­nounced as per­sonal re­la­tion­ships de­velop and strengthen, for others it’s in­dica­tive of an un­der­ly­ing anx­i­ety. Some­times it’s both. For ev­ery in­di­vid­ual, the way up and out is dif­fer­ent. There are cour­ses, apps and hyp­no­sis, and then there was the method that worked for me, though it may not work for others. I sat down with a pro­fes­sional trained to help five times, and five only, and it was gain­ing knowl­edge along­side long hard prac­tice. It wasn’t spo­radic bouts of re­lax­ation exercises or lis­ten­ing to peo­ple say things like: “Fly­ing is the safest mode of trans­port, 22 times safer than a car.” With­out a frame­work or me­thod­i­cal guid­ance, it’s un­der­stand­able why this kind of treat­ment doesn’t work. In­stead, al­though it isn’t new, tried, tested em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence-based cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy (CBT) as­sisted me in pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion in a way that doesn’t feed into anx­i­eties. “Twenty-two times safer”, I would usu­ally fol­low up men­tally with, “is not that high”, but CBT teaches you to short­cir­cuit un­help­ful thought pat­terns with dis­rup­tive, declar­a­tive facts, or “chal­leng­ing thoughts” that stop catas­trophis­ing where it be­gins, invit­ing ra­tio­nal thought back in. Luck­ily, fly­ing has an ex­cel­lent set of facts to bol­ster it, so much so that psy­chol­o­gists of­ten sug­gest pa­tients re­search them – not so much re­ports on ac­ci­dents, rather the me­chan­ics of fly­ing.

Cherry-pick­ing some of these and stow­ing them away to retrieve when needed was the key to work­ing out my cop­ing mech­a­nism mus­cle. A se­lect few in­clude air­tight log­i­cal titbits from re­tired pi­lot Cap­tain Tom Bunn in his app, SOAR: “Pi­lots, be­cause they know the facts, sim­ply can­not un­der­stand why pas­sen­gers have any con­cern at all about tur­bu­lence” or: “Pi­lots change al­ti­tude only for pas­sen­ger com­fort” and, en­dear­ingly: “The air­plane couldn’t be hap­pier than in tur­bu­lence.” I have also learnt that mod­ern air­craft wings are pres­sure-tested to break­ing point and planes un­dergo g-force tests that will never likely be repli­cated un­der nat­u­ral con­di­tions.

In­ter­est­ingly, of all the lay­ered fears bun­dled up in planes – con­gested space, fly­ing alone, fly­ing over wa­ter, small air­craft, long-dis­tance, tur­bu­lence is a par­tic­u­lar stick­ing point for many. And it’s no won­der: the high-paced in­er­tia throws synapses and bal­ance into dis­or­der, bam­boo­zling the in­ner ear. It’s hurtling over a bump some­where be­tween 740 and 930 kilo­me­tres per hour. In se­vere tur­bu­lence, one pi­lot ob­served that a plane’s drop in al­ti­tude was nine to 12 me­tres. That is like jump­ing off a three-storey build­ing.

Bumps of this kind, how­ever, are highly un­likely. Steve All­right, pi­lot and au­thor of Fly­ing with Con­fi­dence, says se­vere tur­bu­lence made up only five min­utes of the 14,000 hours fly­ing time he has un­der his belt. Leisure trav­ellers, he says, “will al­most cer­tainly never ex­pe­ri­ence it, and nor will most busi­ness­peo­ple”. I’ve de­vel­oped this trick: I imagine the cap­tain and first of­fi­cer talk­ing about some­thing ba­nal like the lat­est re­cruit to a foot­ball team as we scud over another roil­ing patch of air.

The jour­ney back to com­fort­able is some­what like these rides. Smooth, then jolted back into the fear state. The mo­ti­va­tion to keep at it is fu­elled by the awe mod­ern fly­ing can in­spire. To be spir­ited onto for­eign soil is won­drous. We dis­cover places, not slowly as be­fore the air age, but

IT HELPS TO KNOW THAT AVI­A­TION IS ON OUR SIDE IN HOW WE EX­PE­RI­ENCE FLIGHT

Karl Lager­feld might have said that he wasn’t break­ing his rule of not look­ing back to the past by stag­ing Chanel’s Métiers d’Art col­lec­tion in his birth­place of Ham­burg, but he hadn’t fooled many. Sum­mon­ing 1,420 power clien­tele as well as me­dia, buy­ers and the cream of the Ger­man cre­ative scene – ac­tresses and film directors alike – to the soar­ing, gleam­ing, brand-spank­ing new Elbphil­har­monie, Ham­burg’s con­cert hall, there re­ally was no more au­then­tic venue for the cre­ative di­rec­tor.

The Métiers d’Art trav­el­ling road­show, which presents the house’s pre-fall col­lec­tion and the fine crafts­man­ship of the French ate­liers the house en­gages to painstak­ingly pro­duce its con­fec­tions – Lesage for em­broi­dery, Le­marié for feath­ers, Des­rues for but­tons, Causse for gloves, and so on, has been cir­cling closer to (Karl’s) home of late. From Dal­las to Tokyo, Salzburg, Rome and most re­cently Paris, where the Chanel ate­liers re­side.

In De­cem­ber, after 16 years of Métiers d’Art, Lager­feld took to the port town an en­sem­ble of the house’s pretty young friends, in­clud­ing Kris­ten Ste­wart, Anna Mouglalis, Aus­tralia’s Phoebe Tonkin and Lily-Rose Depp, who said how touch­ing it was to see him back home. “I was re­ally moved by the whole en­ergy of it and how the mu­sic went so well with the clothes,” she said. “It re­ally re­flects the connection that Karl has to this place. I’m sure it means to him what it means to all of us to come home; this kind of com­fort.”

Dur­ing the show an en­sem­ble of the mu­si­cal va­ri­ety took to the stage of the Grand Hall. Guests took in the Res­o­nanz or­ches­tra, led by Lon­don cel­list Oliver Coates, who per­formed mu­sic com­posed for the show, send­ing notes float­ing up to the top, tent-like reaches of the Her­zog and de Meu­ron de­signed build­ing.

Below, Kaia Ger­ber and Anna Ew­ers led mod­els wind­ing their way down cas­cad­ing ter­races in navy ca­ble knits, leg warm­ers and sailors’ duf­fels slung over shoul­ders. Chanel has long been known for its nau­ti­cal connection – Coco made fa­mous the marinière stripe – and it was up­dated in trouser suits, smart naval jack­ets trimmed in naval braid and topped with cap­tain’s hats. A check tweed that mir­rored the brickwork of the city, and metal­lic skirt suits, were signed off with shim­mer­ing evening looks swathed in black se­quins. Lager­feld had the most fun with the ac­ces­sories. Take the shipping con­tainer, yes, shipping con­tainer-in­spired minaudières. Only Chanel could make such a util­i­tar­ian ob­ject chic. Or the ac­cor­dion bags in felt to look like a ship’s mu­si­cal in­stru­ment of choice.

Post show, post stand­ing ova­tion, guests ven­tured on to Fis­chauk­tion­shalle, or fish auc­tion hall, to drink cham­pagne and eat the catch of the day as can­dles melted over the tables. It was a port of call to end the night, re­plete with tat­too par­lour, danc­ing and a swash­buck­ling choir. “Some­thing about that show was re­ally, re­ally spe­cial,” Depp said. A true home­com­ing, Chanel style.

“I WAS RE­ALLY MOVED BY THE WHOLE EN­ERGY OF IT AND HOW THE MU­SIC WENT SO WELL …”

Mod­els en­cir­cle the or­ches­tra, led by cel­list Oliver Coates.

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