Learning to fly: Overcoming a fear of flying - and ignoring the media hype

by Vomle Springford / 19 April, 2018
Southwest plane

On April 17, a Southwest Airlines plane going from New York to Dallas encountered an engine problem, leaving one woman dead. Photo/Getty.

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Plane crashes are at once fascinating and terrifying to the general public - witness the screaming headlines around this week’s Southwest Airlines’ engine incident. But for those with a pre-existing fear of flying it can add another layer to a debilitating phobia. That fear can be overcome, says Grant Amos. Meet the man helping Kiwis to fly.

People’s fears of flying are bound to be heightened with the news of the Southwest Airlines plane engine incident which left a woman dead and Air New Zealand’s urgent engine maintenance.

And the media’s continual emotional dramatisation of the incident doesn’t help, says Grant Amos, a psychologist and director of Flying Without Fear, an organisation which runs 10 courses a year to help people overcome their fear.

He says people will use accidents like the Southwest Airlines one, in which a blade from the engine came loose or broke, smashing into a window, as reasons not to fly.

“What will happen is we’ll get a drop off [in course interest] to begin with because passengers who have a problem with flying will turn that accident into a justification of why not to fly. Later on when they have to fly, it comes to the surface again and then they will often use the accident as a reason for why they have a problem."

“They are a bit of a vacuum cleaner, picking out the bad bits in movies, TV programmes, out of what their friends tell them about their really bad landing and they will pick up on things in the media. No media headline is saying: ‘we’ve had an accident and the first person has been killed on a plane since 2008.’”

He says the media constantly misreport or dramatise plane accidents without any facts.

“All these people are dramatising: ‘I was thinking of my daughters, I thought I was never going to see them again, my husband and I prayed’... we get the drama around it, as opposed to what actually took place.”

In the Southwest Airlines case, Amos says many reports described the passenger who died as being “sucked” out of the window – which creates an image of someone holding on to the edge of the window, legs flailing while people try to drag her back in more newsworthy than saying the cabin depressurised and the woman was lifted from her seat and blown into the window. The US has close to 15 million takeoffs and landings a year and it’s extremely rare that anyone dies.

“Everywhere you hear how she was sucked out and how the people had to pull her back from being sucked out of the plane… she’s likely to have died from blunt force trauma to her head by being blown from her seat against the window or the fuselage.”

He says most people on his courses haven’t actually had a bad experience.

“Very few people have been in a really life-threatening situation when they’ve flown, they may have been in a flight which was uncomfortable turbulence, for example, becomes a big issue, because if a plane’s not flying smoothly ‘it must be dangerous’, when in fact movement in the plane isn't a danger.”

There’s a multitude of reasons why people are afraid to fly, says Amos, but there are some commonalities between the course participants.

“Many of them suffer from a condition called learned anxiety. Around 85 percent of them will be going through stressful periods over the last two years of their life before they have a problem on a plane. 100 percent of them will hyperventilate; 85 percent are perfectionists, control freaks, it has to be done their way; 20 percent of them have a phobia in other parts of their life, such as claustrophobia or agoraphobia, some of them have weird phobias that only happen when they fly.”

Amos says for a number of years, the average age of a course participant remains at 42. Many will also self-medicate before a flight with booze or drugs. For some people, it makes it worse. “Instead of being an uncomfortable passenger they’re now a drunk uncomfortable passenger or a stoned uncomfortable passenger. For 10-15 percent of people that use benzodiazepines, they don't realise the [anxiety] symptoms will increase, not decrease.”

The courses focus on understanding what is happening to the plane, what makes it stay in the sky, what turbulence is, and coping strategies. It’s flying 101, he says, which could actually be useful for most people, afraid to fly or not: “In any planeload of passengers, you can guarantee 99 percent of them don't have a clue what's going on.”

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