Why do we feel the fear?
With statistics like these, it should be easy to get anyone on to a slick, modern jet. Crashes were for the 1960s and 1970s, when the industry was in its infancy and mistakes were there for the making. Today pilots are better trained, passengers are meticulously screened, and mind-bogglingly complex technology is making tiny adjustments to a flying aircraft by the second. In fact, you might ask, why is anyone still scared of flying at all?
“The reason that people still have a fear of flying is that for the majority of them it’s not about rational thoughts or fears,” says Professor Robert Bor, a consultant clinical psychologist and co-author of the book Overcome Your Fear Of Flying. He explains that a multitude of sensations during a flight can add up to a serious fear of flying – including concerns about heights, claustrophobia, not being in control, and separation anxiety from loved ones, or even your luggage. “People also worry that their feelings of fear may escalate and they won’t be able to do anything about it,” Professor Bor adds. “It’s not so much about safety and wings falling off and engines stalling, all of which we can answer.”
Reassuring stats, then, are clearly only half the picture, and only going to be of comfort to a very particular type of person. Paul Tizzard, co-founder of Virgin Atlantic’s long-running Flying Without Fear courses, knows exactly who that person is.
“It helps if you’re very logic-oriented,” he says. “We had a fellow come to see us for help who was a professor of maths with a very senior job, and he absolutely loved all the stats. He went through all the statistical analysis about safety, weighed it up and said to us, ‘You know, the figures really stack up.’ Other people, you can tell them 50 times that it’s the safest form of travel but it won’t make a difference until they actually believe it.”
Virgin Atlantic’s programme is designed to do just that and is split into three parts. The day starts with a bombardment of reassuring safety information from industry professionals and is followed by an afternoon of self-help techniques. Finally, there’s a short flight on an actual aircraft, and almost everyone makes it on to the plane. They don’t actually measure success by ‘bums on seats’ because many attendees already fly anyway, but their surveys show that around 98 per cent of people leave feeling better about flying than when they arrived.
Virgin Atlantic’s monthly courses are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and come with the approval of the big boss himself, Sir Richard Branson. The entrepreneur proved good to his word that he wanted to hear new ideas from his employees and responded to Tizzard’s suggestion within 24 hours, way back in 1997.
Since the course started, the Flying Without Fear team’s understanding of people’s anxieties has grown ever more acute. “You can basically group fears into some quite straightforward categories,” Tizzard says. “Claustrophobia, fear of turbulence, fear of falling, fear of crashing, fear of dying. Those fears all exist.”
But what many people don’t realise, he says, is that a
‘The reason people still have a fear of flying is that it’s not about rational thoughts or fear’
nervous flyer’s fear is unique to them. “Perception of what is a ‘bad flight’, for example, is different for everyone,” Tizzard explains. “People might say that in turbulence, the aircraft was shaking all over the place, but that doesn’t actually happen: what happened is that their body decided they didn’t like it and that this was a bad flight.”
Once your mind is set, it can be hard to convince yourself otherwise. Witness unfortunate British schoolboy Joe Thompson, stranded in the UAE last July after suddenly developing an acute fear of flying. The 11-year-old’s terror was so severe that his dad had to plan an overland trip back to Britain – not the easiest route to arrange.
“We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves, though,” says Professor Bor. “We’re still meant to be hunter-gatherers on the ground and we’re not very well equipped to deal with tremendous acceleration speeds, big noises, enclosed spaces, people in very close proximity and going to foreign destinations. I know it happens every day, but we’re not