Fear of flying, or aviophobia, is a relatively common phobia. Although distressing, there are ways to reduce the negative feelings and eventually conquer the fear. Here, we discuss the options.
Fact: flying is the safest way to travel. The latest International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) report shows that, in 2015, there were only 92 commercial airline accidents out of 33 million estimated flights worldwide.
More importantly, there were only six fatal accidents, resulting in 474 deaths. Given that approximately 3.5 billion air passengers traveled in 2015, that's a rate of only one death per 7.5 million passengers.
Compare this to the latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which show that in the United States alone, there were 32,166 fatal accidents in 2015, resulting in 35,092 deaths. That's a rate of 11 deaths per 100,000 of the U.S. population. These figures show how significantly safer air travel is than car travel.
But, despite these statistics, fear of flying (aviophobia) is a common complaint: a 2014 YouGov survey suggests that a third of Americans admitted to being slightly anxious about flying, and some 16 percent confessed to being too afraid to fly.
Fast facts on aviophobia
Here are some key points about the fear of flying. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
One factor that has helped to amplify fear of flying is the heavy media coverage of airplane accidents. Seeing images of an airplane crash on TV or in the newspaper can sway one's opinion on the safety of air travel without even considering the true risk involved.
Airport security measures, such as long queues, body searches, and X-ray scanners can also trigger feelings of anxiety in some people.
Sometimes, the fear is simply the result of a bad experience in the past, such as a flight with severe air turbulence.
Aviophobia as a result of related phobias
Often, a fear of flying is not due to the flying itself but stems from related factors, such as:
- a fear of being in an enclosed space (claustrophobia)
- a fear of crowds (enochlophobia)
- a fear of heights (acrophobia)
- a fear of hijacking or terrorism
Regardless of the cause of the fear, people may experience the following physical symptoms before and during a flight:
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- clouded thinking
For some, even the prospect of planning future air travel can trigger these symptoms. This can limit leisure options and may be a problem for those who need to travel for business.
Because the causes of aviophobia are diverse, specific treatment options are needed to address the particular fear involved. Below are some different strategies used to combat a fear of flying (and flying-related phobias).
There are a number of practical ways to reduce the fear associated with flying (and various flying-related phobias); these include:
1. Facing your fears
One technique used by psychologists to help people overcome their fear of flying is controlled exposure. Exposure-based therapies work by gradually exposing the person to the object or situation that frightens them.
In general, people with a fear of flying tend to avoid it. This means that they do not have the opportunity to learn that, very often, their fears or anxieties do not come true; or, if they do come true, that they can tolerate them because they are not as terrible as they imagine.
Treatment usually involves a number of sessions under the guidance of a trained therapist.
In the first sessions, people generally learn anxiety management techniques, such as deep breathing and how to identify and correct irrational thoughts.
In the later sessions, they learn to face their fear in controlled stages.
Traditionally, this involved the therapist accompanying the person onto an actual flight, but these days virtual reality can be used to simulate the various onboard conditions.
Studies suggest that controlled exposure is an effective treatment for a flying phobia with participants reporting significantly reduced flight-related anxiety and an increased likelihood of flying again at a follow-up assessment.
2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps people to change how they think about things they are afraid of. In CBT, people learn to question negative thoughts and emotions to see if they are realistic and helpful. If they are not, then these thoughts must be corrected so that they don't develop into negative behavior patterns.
This study shows that the skills acquired in CBT treatment were associated with reduced flying anxiety. Also, the participants continued to use the skills after treatment was completed, which suggests that CBT has positive long-term effects. There are a number of CBT courses available online; the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website is a good place to start.
3. Pharmacological treatment
Medication is sometimes prescribed on a temporary basis to treat the symptoms of a flying phobia, such as anxiety and nausea. These drugs are usually taken shortly before a flight. They include:
- Anti-anxiety medication, such as diazepam (Valium) or alprazolam (Xanax).
- Motion sickness medication, such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine).
It is important to see a doctor before using these medications. They are only seen as a short-term solution; they can prevent anxious fliers from addressing their fears, which may be more pronounced the next time they fly without the crutch of medication. They can also be addictive.
4. Take a fear-of-flying course
Many airlines now offer a 1-day course to help people conquer their fear of flying. The course is aimed at people who are too frightened to get on board as well as those who suffer from anxiety while flying.
For some people, the opportunity to meet trained airline pilots and ask them questions about the airplane and their experiences of flying can help to put their minds at ease. For others, the chance to board a plane without the dread of a real flight helps them become more familiar and relaxed in the environment; it can prepare them for the real thing.
5. Planning a trip
Careful planning can help to take the stress out of traveling. Here are some practical tips to ensure a trip will go smoothly:
- Book a direct flight without any transfers to make the trip shorter.
- Reserve a seat in the middle over the wings - here, there is less turbulence.
- Choose an aisle seat - these have additional space, allowing stretched out legs; or, pick a window seat where you are less likely to be disturbed.
- Reserve priority boarding to reduce queuing before getting on the plane, which can make some people anxious.
- Fly in a larger plane - larger planes are less affected by turbulence.
Fear of flying is something that can be conquered with the right tools and help. Don't let fear stop you from going on a memorable foreign vacation, enjoying time with family overseas, or making the most of international business opportunities. You can do it!