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.
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.