Why do we feel the fear?

Friday - - Inside -

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

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