How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying

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Flying is an essential part of travel, and for those of you who feel anxious before taking off, these tips may help you feel at ease.

Young woman looking through window on plane at the airport at sunset Photo © Getty Images/Westend61

Hardly surprising when you realize what's going on inside the engine: highly flammable fuel is being pulverised in a maelstrom of air which has been blasted through the intake at 900 km/h, super-heated to an intense 2000 degrees Celsius, squeezed close to atom-smashing pressure, and then thrust into the near vacuum of the troposphere with enough energy to propel a 400 tonne aluminum tube through the air. (Scared now?).

Engine failure: Overcome by skillful pilots

One of the most well known cases of recent plane engine failure is Airbus A380 Qantas flight 32 from London bound for Sydney in November 2010. The scenario began to unfold over Indonesia 2 hours after taking off from Singpore Changi Airport after stopping over when an engine exploded. This resulted in the loss of vital systems, their backups plus two other engines also became compromised. 

This type of incident was never in the training textbooks however due to the decades of experience, skills and composure of Captain Richard Champion De Crespigny and his other 4 flight crew, QF32 landed safely at Singapore Changi Airport. Of the 440 passengers and 29 crew onboard, no one was injured. 

Engine failures can also happen not at cruising altitude but because of bird strike. Remember the Hero of the Hudson, who ditched his aircraft into the New York river in 2009 after a double bird strike?

It was a dramatic incident, and the fact no one was killed is testament to the skill of the Captain Chesley Sullenberger. Recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers during the emergency reveal how calm and professional he was. They also show how everyone involved was doing everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of the people aboard. Very reassuring.

How safe is flying?

What are the chances you'll be killed in a scheduled passenger air service? Well, someone's actually worked it out.

A study published in the August 2010 edition of the Journal of Transportation Science puts the risk at 1 in 3 million. But (there's always a but) that's an average. The real figure is higher or lower, depending on where you're flying.

In first world industrialized nations, like the US, Japan and Canada, the figure is a reassuring 1 in 14 million. In middle-ranking nations, like Singapore, South Korea, Brazil and China, it's 1 in 2 million. In developing nations, the death risk per flight is 1 in 800,000.

Given you're reading this on a travel site, you're most likely an avid traveller, and there's a good chance you'll be taking a few flights in those more risky developing nations. So how does 1 in 800,000 compare to other dangers? The risk of being killed in an auto accident in one year in the US is about 1 in 6500. Multiply that over your lifetime and it's about 1 in 83. Flying is sounding a whole lot safer now, right?

What to do if there is an incident mid-air

What should you do if there is an engine failure at take-off? You read the safety card while the plane was on the tarmac, right? Do it next time.

If you didn't notice the loud bang and the flames coming from the engine, if the shuddering of the aircraft escaped you, if the screams of the other passengers can't be heard through your headphones (this is why you are told to switch off music players), if you haven't noticed you're getting closer to the ground – the first indication something's wrong will be when the pilot comes over the intercom and says "Brace! Brace! Brace!" You should brace now. "Brace" means brace for impact. Head on your knees or the seat in front of you, grip your ankles with your feet flat on the floor. This is to stop your limbs flailing around on impact, reducing injury and making it more likely you'll be in fit shape to make your escape.

Have a look out the window, if you've landed on water you'll need your life jacket, otherwise leave it, don't waste time getting it. Most likely it'll be dark, smoky, bags will have fallen out of storage bins, people may be crying and screaming. It'll be chaotic. Or it may not – many times survivors have reported it was eerily calm.

The crew and passengers will be opening the emergency exits, automatically deploying the escape slides.

Leave your bags and possessions behind. Of course you counted the number of rows to the nearest exit when you took your seat – follow the floor lights. Shoes off. Jump down the escape slide feet first. Move away from the aircraft, about 150 metres upwind, but don't wander off, wait for help.

Chances of surviving an air crash

In his book Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes, author George Bibel takes the example of the DC-10, an aircraft with not a great safety record. Of the 446 delivered, 27 of them were involved in crashes that led to "total hull loss." Overall in these crashes, 69% of all passengers and crew members survived. If you throw out the three worst crashes, the survival rate is nearly 90%.

The airlines will tell you there's no guaranteed "safe" seat on a plane, but the statistics do give you a clue to seat preference. In first and business class only 49% survive a fatal crash. (But they get a better quality of champagne to toast their impending departure). Back in cattle-class, 56% forward of the wing and the same number over the wing survive. Down the back of the bus, the rear of the cabin, the survival rate is 69%, so stop whining about being last off the plane at your destination.

I'm still afraid of flying

Rationality has nothing to do with it, and ramming statistics down your throat won't do anything to address your anxiety. Most major airlines run "fear of flying" courses where they address these problems and help you get over your concerns. Usually they're free, and very successful, so give it a shot.

If you haven't taken the course (or it hasn't helped) one last tip: Be cautious taking medication to calm down (or put you to sleep) before a flight. In the very unlikely event something goes wrong, you'll need to be alert. In all seriousness, you should be alert while changing flights and going through customs at the airport, so don't completely knock yourself out.

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  • Capt Tom Bunn LCSW said

    Great article. But a word of caution is needed about airline courses. They are outdated carbon copies of the course we did in 1975 at Pan Am. And the motivation is the same: PR - to make people believe the airline cares. If the airline really did care, their courses would not be based on junk psychology: breathing/relaxation exercises.

    Breathing exercises do not work. Research makes that perfectly clear. Yet, that doesn't keep the pseudo experts these airlines use from claiming they will control high anxiety and panic. Participants get through the "graduation flight" with group support and a constantly reassuring pilot. But when you later fly on their own, the breathing exercises they have been told to rely on fail to do the job.

    Having no way to know they have been sold a bill of goods, they believe THEY - not the course that set them up for failure (and claims nearly 100% success) is the problem.

    Adequate help is available. But, NOT at courses provided by the airlines. More info at my Psychology Today Blog


  • Kaylee said

    "Tips on coping with your fear of flying"... Really? Where are the tips? There is not one tip in this article - besides go to a course by the airline and then no information/links provided. As an avid traveler and terrified flyer I read this article for some help. All you did was tell me what can go wrong and what to do in case of emergency - not see how often you fly but the airlines provide that information prior to each and every take off, and I'm sure im not the only scared flee who listens intently because my brain is tellin me I need to know this because I'm bound to need to do it! False advertising - rename the article!


  • Amy said

    Agree with Kaylee. This article is very poorly written and doesn't fit the brief. So my chances of being killed is 1 in 3 million but I shouldn't take a sleeping pill because if that 1 in 3 million chance comes up I'll need to be fully alert? And engine parts are "likely to fail" during take-off? More likely, perhaps, but "likely"?! This is in no way helpful for those with a fear of flying!


  • Africa said

    Agreed with Kaylee. I've read this article in order to feel more relaxed and now I know more horrible details about a crash !
    What does "It is NOT true the brace position will kill you faster but make it easier for rescuers to identify your body parts" mean???? Really?? Thank you...

    Rename this bad article or many people will feel injured.


  • Judy said

    For people who have a real fear or phobia about flying this article is not helpful. They should seek help and possibly get some drugs to ease their anxiety. I avoided flying for 9 years until I found a doctor who understood the difference between anxiety and irrational fear. With Xanax I have flown all over the world and realized my travel dreams. Please don't minimize peoples' fear, rational or irrational.


  • Bronek DeNiro said

    Prior to reading this article I had a mild fear of flying. I am now terrified of flying! As if descriptions what could go wrong wasn't enough, the author decided to attach a photo of a blown engine?!? I will most likely unsubscribe from Nomads because of this article.


  • Mellie said

    Honestly I am more scared than ever after reading this article. This is more about how to survive a plane crash, not how to calm your nerves and relax on your flight.


  • JerseyGirl said

    I don't typically open my emails from world nomads but today I did. I am upset I read this article, and that a travel insurance company would post something in such poor taste. I think next time ill think twice about purchasing my 6 months worth of travel insurance from world nomads. This is simply an article for how to survive a plane crash. I agree with the other writers, this article has created additional fear of flying. This is a shame that many people will read this thinking there is some light information regarding travel anxiety. Please take this down.


  • Becky said

    I completely agree with the above comments! This article only aggravated my fear of flying and gave me some vivid, specific emergencies to picture during takeoff and landing. Seriously, why was this posted and how could it be given such a misleading title?! Poor form.


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