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Fear of flying - how to overcome it

fear of flying

Scared of flying? Desperate to go abroad but terrified to set foot on a plane? You're not alone. Gransnetters have put their questions to our experts who've come up with some excellent solutions to help you overcome your fear of flying. Here are their answers to your most pertinent questions. 


Feeling claustrophobic | How to get through turbulence with ease | What to do if you're scared during take off and landing | Tackling assumptions about flying | How to stop current events from making you afraid to fly | How not to expect the worst when you fly | Overcoming the phobia | Petrified of flying as you've got older? | Long-distance grandparenting and the fear of flying | Is tackling your fears really that important?      



I feel claustrophobic and can't seem to calm my nerves

Q: It is not the flying that bothers me but the claustrophobia coupled with my RLS (restless leg syndrome) which tends to kick in on every flight. I am not fond of long bus journeys either - I much prefer taking the ferry or train where you can walk about and get a breath of air. Since smoking was banned on all flights and in most airports, it is much worse. No chance of a soothing ciggy to calm your nerves when you need it most. I try to sleep or distract myself with books and Sudoku, but being small, the seats are uncomfortable and my legs and arms leap which annoys other passengers and drives me to distraction. Any tips? 

A: First of all, I would suggest that you see your GP to see what can be offered to help you. Secondly, if you are on a BA long haul flight you can listen to a guided relaxation exercise from the audio section under Wellbeing. This will enable you to ensure that all your muscles are feeling relaxed. Thirdly, once the seat belt signs are switched off, you are welcome to move around the aircraft.

Finally, you can always make your seat more comfortable by bringing on board a bag and cushion that you can rest your feet on after take off. In some aircrafts they have hassocks which would give you extra height, but the bag and cushion is just as effective. There is not much I can suggest with regard to the cigarette - but perhaps you could use patches and make sure that you save your favourite reading material for the flight.


Q: I'm trying to persuade my sister to come on holiday with me but she is reluctant, not because of a fear of crashing (that's my department), but she is very claustrophobic and the fact that she can't get off if she has had enough gives her nausea-inducing panic attacks. Please give me some tips so that she will come with me! 

A: Passengers who suffer from claustrophobia have found the 4 Rs techniques described in the book to be invaluable not just for flying but for getting into lifts and any other enclosed spaces. Another useful tip for a passenger with claustrophobia is for them to use their imagination constructively by closing their eyes and imagining that they are in their favourite comfortable chair at home whilst listening to their favourite programmes/music on their iPad. I do hope that both of you take the steps required to enable you to have a wonderful holiday together. 

Read more about how to manage anxiety and panic attacks here.


How can I get through turbulence with ease?

woman on a plane fear of flying

Q: I do fly because I want to go to places outside the UK, but I don't particularly enjoy it. It's not a big issue though...unless there is turbulence. Then I completely lose the plot. Can you suggest anything to get me through the bumpy bits? 

A: Three bits of advice. 1. Turbulence is uncomfortable, but NEVER dangerous. 2. Practice breathing exercises during turbulence to help you relax. 3. If you're on a BA long haul flight, you can watch the on board Flying with Confidence video and listen to the on-board audio which will enable you to relax during turbulence.


What should I do if I'm scared during take-off and landing?

Q: I am fine once in the air, but am always scared of take-off and landing. I deal with it by not looking out of the window at that time, and studiously reading something (anything!), making sure I carefully emphasise every word to myself (not out loud of course). Bit dilly, but it works for me. Come to think of it, I'm applying the principles of mindfulness! I would also welcome any tips for not being scared during turbulence.

A: Yes, you are sensibly applying mindfulness, which enables you to access your thinking brain rather than being trapped in your emotional brain. Try rehearsing a positive scenario, which enables you to control your thinking. This would be extremely helpful for you in not only turbulence but any situation which causes you to be anxious. It is also worth recognising that some people may experience turbulence as uncomfortable but it is never ever dangerous. I personally like it - but then I know that it cannot harm me.


How can I tackle my assumptions about flying?

Q: I fly reasonably frequently and do so on the assumption that the pilot wishes to live a little longer. I do, however, always sit at the back based on the knowledge that I have never heard of an airliner ever backing into a mountain. To date that is!

A: Well yes, I would like to live to a ripe old age, and I always sit at the front! After a spate of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) accidents in the 1980s, these are now mercifully very rare, mainly due to new technology that is available called EGPWS, Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, which is basically a worldwide database of the terrain of the entire planet, and your GPS relative to it, which together generate a (very loud) warning if you are getting too close to ground which is not an airport.


Q: I fly quite a lot and over the years have become more relaxed about it. If your number is up, it's up is my philosophy! I'm not too keen on turbulence but try to imagine I am in a car travelling down a very rough road. I am flying back to the UK and even after a aborted landing last week, which wasn't particularly pleasant, I am not worried. I have faith in the pilot and crew; they are all highly trained and able to deal with most eventualities... aren't they?

A: Yes they are! And not "most" eventualities, ALL. Every single eventuality you can think of, and more, is trained and tested routinely in our six monthly simulator checks throughout our career.


Q: I hate flying with every fibre of my being for several reasons. 1. It is wrecking the planet. We have to move on from the idea that we can fly where we want when we want regardless of what it is doing to the world. It is a dangerous mindset that has dangerous outcomes. 2. I detest the sensation of flying. I understand all the physics of aeroplane flight, but hate the feeling. 3. Human error whilst in the sky is far more dangerous than on the ground, eg in a train. And there is no way of eliminating human error. 4. The comparison statistics between car and plane are spurious. Deaths and injury per mile are misleading - the crucial statistic is deaths per accident. 

A: I'm sorry to hear you hate flying - I love it! I'm afraid I have to disagree with most of your points, as below:

1. Emissions from aviation are estimated to contribute less than 2% of the world's pollution, even the harshest critics put that figure at just 4%.

2. I'm sorry to hear you hate the feeling, if you come along to one of our courses we can explain why humans feel uncomfortable in the air, and how to overcome that feeling.

3. There are actually many ways of reducing human error, although you can never completely eliminate it. Careful selection of pilots, excellent training, rigorous testing, strict operating procedures including use of checklists, and instruction and practical exercises in leadership, situational awareness, decision making and teamwork are just some of these ways we reduce human error in the flight deck.

4. I personally believe the crucial statistic is total number of fatalities per form of transport. Flying is still by far and away the safest form of travel, however you measure it.


And how can I stop current events from making me scared of flying?

fear of flying

Q: Recently, there have been two catastrophic plane crashes in the news and now I am absolutely dreading going to Spain. It's all very well saying only one in however many crashes, but that's no comfort to the people on a plane. Also, I read various news reports saying how little flying experience the pilot had on that particular aircraft to San Francisco. I appreciate everyone has to start somewhere, but this hasn't helped my nerves. What if my pilot is a trainee? And saying there are always experienced people alongside doesn't help. There were in this case too. 

A: You are right that these accidents were catastrophic, but the actual loss of life was minimal (less than 20 in total). The number of aviation related fatalities falls year on year, whilst the number of people who fly continues to increase.


I now expect the worst every time I fly

Q: I was on a flight which made an emergency landing some years ago. Everyone was fine (I think it was mainly precautionary), but now I expect the worst every time I set foot on a plane. What's the best way for me to relax and move on from this? 

A: Remember that everyone was fine. I expect you still relive the trauma you went through before landing, fearing the worst, whereas actually everyone was fine and it was the right and safe course of action by the pilots. If you're still unsure, book yourself onto one of the BA Flying with Confidence courses to help you move on. 


Q: My friend’s daughter is almost refusing to fly. She did have sickness the first time she flew owing to bad food. Can one help her to get over this to give the family a chance to go away? 

A: Yes. Sadly, your friend’s daughter has made an erroneous association with food poisoning and flying, which is very understandable since this happened on her first flight and she had no other experience with which she could compare this unfortunate incident. In the book I explain how the brain makes this connection through pattern matching. By understanding the experience, your friend’s daughter might well feel confident to attempt another flight. If she does, then I recommend that she prepares for the flight by listening to the CD of the same title. This would enable her to rehearse a flight in a state of calmness and relaxation so that the anxious pattern is over ridden by a calm virtual experience. She might also feel more reassured if she takes her own food on to the aircraft the first time she returns to flying and then this element could be addressed at a later point. I wish the family every success in dealing with this as it must be very upsetting for all concerned that they have lost their ability to have a family holiday of their choice. 


I think I have a real phobia. What can I do? Is there is a good phobia treatment?

Q: I think I would be your ultimate challenge! If I fly, I think I will die. I know all the statistics about safety, but they mean nothing to me. I think I have a true phobia. I have tried flying but remain terrified for the duration of the flight and, at my age, this cannot be healthy. Any suggestions?

A: You have just got into some very negative habits, which have been learned. The good news is that they can be unlearned and new healthy constructive habits can be introduced. If you read the book you will see that you are far from alone in having a negative attitude towards flying, which in my experience is nearly always based on false information. It doesn’t matter if you are seven or 70, you can be helped. One of my favourite maxims is that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks and the success results of our courses endorse this over and over again. In fact, the usual refrain we hear on pretty much every course is "I just wish that I had tried this sooner".


I've become petrified of flying as I've got older. How can I hide this from a child? 

child at the airport

Q: I didn't mind flying when I was younger, but since then I've become petrified. My son is going on a plane for the first time next month - how can I hide my fear from him? And how can I distract him from the plane (and myself)? He is three and it's a short haul flight so there won't really be any inflight entertainment. 

A: You are very sensible to address this problem now as a child witnessing an upset parent is extremely distressing. I suggest that you prepare for the flight by listening to the CD mentioned above as this will give you the opportunity to reclaim your former ability to fly happily. This way you can rehearse for success. It is also a good idea to warn the airline with which you are travelling that you are an anxious flyer and that way they can give you reassurances during the flight. Many three-year-olds absolutely adore flying and it is all about how it is presented to them. I suggest that you talk to your son about the exciting holiday he is about to have and let him play with model aeroplanes and if possible find a suitable story book about aircraft to help him become familiar with the concept of flying. On another note, becoming a parent is one of the major causes of why people suddenly develop a fear of flying. This is based on the incorrect assumption that it is dangerous when in fact it is one of the safest things we can do. If you are prepared to take your son in a car, you should be happy to take him on an aircraft since it is actually 29 times safer.


We're long-distance grandparents, but she won't fly. Help!

Q: My friend will not fly because of the after effects of the flight. She gets headaches and migraines and feels ill for 12 or more hours after the flight and has to lie down and go to bed. Her daughter is married to my son, and we share a granddaughter. The snag is that they have relocated to the USA, which means a long haul flight to visit them. I have tried and tried to get her to talk about her reservations and fears to help her overcome them. Recently, I've discovered that she has consulted her GP about this and he has prescribed medication which will help, but she won't take it so we are at an impasse. I suggested cognitive behavioural therapy, which didn't go down too well! I think her problems are basically psychological and it is this which gives rise to the physical symptoms, although I accept that these are very real. Do you have any suggestions? 

A: How terribly sad that your friend is limiting her life in this way. Many people are very averse to taking medication and if this is her view then taking it will only add to her distress as she will also worry about the side effects. If your friend’s headaches are caused by her anxiety about flying then you could give her the book, which will arm her with the information and knowledge that will enable her to feel secure and confident about flying. Also, many people forget to drink plenty of liquids when they are on a flight and the dehydration will make headaches more likely. In my experience, many anxious people avoid drinking on an aircraft so that they do not have to get up to go to the loo as they are frightened to get out of their seat and this, of course, just adds to the anxiety and physical discomfort. Sadly, your friend will only do something about her situation when her sadness and resentment about missing out on seeing your mutual granddaughter is greater than her decision not to fly. I sincerely hope that the bond she develops with her granddaughter proves the incentive to enable her to try flying once again.


Is tackling the fear of flying really that important?

Q: The British Airways team worked wonders with my daughter. Can't keep her on the ground now.

A: I am so pleased that your daughter now happily takes to the skies and can now reap the rewards of being able to explore this amazing planet.


Patricia Furness-Smith is a psychologist and psychotherapist and has been a member of the British Airways Flying with Confidence team for over 10 years. Captain Steve Allright (surely the best name ever for reassuring nervous passengers?) is a British Airways training captain and a professional pilot. He has been part of the Flying with Confidence team for 20 years and is now a director of the company. Together, they have written a book, Flying with Confidence, the result of helping over 45,000 people conquer their fears. 








Images: Shutterstock

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