Fear of Flying

A reader writes: How can I overcome my fear of flying? When I’m on an airplane, every little bit of turbulence makes me jump. It’s not so much that I’m afraid of terrorism as I am of the possibility of incompetent mechanics on the ground who maintain the aircraft, or cost-cutting CEOs of the airline who would send an older airplane with maintenance problems up into the sky rather than spend money on a newer one. I realize that without flying I will never get to go anywhere very interesting, so I’d like to hear your advice.

Dr. Hurd replies:

Everything has a price. A candy bar costs fifty cents. A car costs twenty or thirty thousand dollars. A house costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just as objects have financial costs, choices we make have emotional or psychological costs. Marriage, for example, means having less control over your independent living in exchange, hopefully, for the presence of a wonderful level of intimacy and compatibility in your life.

Flying, for you and many others, also has a psychological cost. Some are focused more on the fear of terrorists. Others dislike flying not because of a fear of crashing, but because of being cooped up for a lengthy period of time. Still others, like yourself, dread flying for fear of mechanical failure and human error.

I could reply to your specific fears. For example, I might point out that airlines—at least so long as they are required to make a profit, and so long as they are held legally accountable for endangering passenger lives—have every interest in sending up a safe airplane every single time. U.S. Airways, for example, had a number of crashes in the mid-1990’s. They hired a new safety team and advertised that they were making safety priority one. Although, regrettably, accidents are always possible, this particular airline has not suffered a major crash in many years.

Similarly, America West Airlines a few years back suffered the embarrassment of having two pilots arrested for legal drunkenness. The very next day, their press spokesperson issued an unequivocal statement that this behavior would never, ever be tolerated for a second once it was known to them. They fired both pilots on the spot. Given how difficult it can be to fire people today, this is rather noteworthy.

Fortunately, there were no psychiatrists or lawyers ready and eager to intimidate the airline into putting the pilots back in the cockpit. The objective reality of flying, and the safety it requires, is something that even so-called experts, politicians, and attorneys dare not ignore. This is something you have on your side when you fly, as opposed to other activities you undertake in today’s excuse-laden, lawsuit- ridden, government-regulation-choking society. Ironically, you’re safer in the air than in many other places. The excuse-makers don’t want to crash any more than you do.

I could also point out that there are 30,000 commercial flights every single day. You know how few of these crash per year. Do the math: more than 10 million flights a year, and the overwhelming majority land safely. These examples could, theoretically, reduce your fears somewhat. But I realize they probably won’t. Why? Because, for most people, fear of flying raises issues of control and cost. Not financial cost, but psychological cost as stated earlier. When you get on an airplane, you are also forced to confront the fact that you have no control. You are placing your life totally into the judgment of the pilots and the airline executives who are responsible for making sure that maintenance and operation of the airplane is adequate.

There’s no denying this fact, and this fact confronts you in the force of a powerful emotion every time you get on a plane. It always will. You’re going to have to learn to cope with it.

When you drive a car, you have more control over what happens to the car. You are the one driving the vehicle, and you are the one responsible for making sure maintenance is adequate. When you get into an airplane, you are surrendering this control and this is what makes you so anxious. Every bit of turbulence reminds you of this fact.

There are techniques for treating the symptoms of flight anxiety: anti-anxiety medication, deep breathing, happy thoughts, rational thoughts, focusing on what you will do when the plane will land, keeping yourself busy, using alcoholic beverages, and so forth. I’m not knocking any of these approaches. But they only address the symptoms. The fear will always return, next time, no matter how many times you do these things.

If you’re interested in not only treating the symptoms, but also in attempting to address root causes, then work on the issues of control and emotional cost in your daily life. Don’t wait to do this until you have a flight scheduled. In your daily life and introspection, ask yourself how you can become more accepting of things over which you have no control. Ask yourself how you can work to better accept that there are not only fiscal costs to most things, but psychological costs as well. Keep a journal and note when you handle these situations more or less rationally than normal. Work to be more accepting of circumstances over which you have no control. Practice letting go. Hire a therapist or personal coach to reinforce you in your efforts.

Also, try to work on distinguishing the likely and the probable from the merely possible. A plane crash is always possible. But it’s not likely or probable. The overwhelming majority of flights on the overwhelming majority of days occur without incident. Airline executives have every incentive to make sure this is the case. If their plane goes down, then everybody will know. They have every incentive to make sure this doesn’t happen. In the case of flying, the emotional cost is that you must relinquish control over certain things. It’s the price you pay for living a better, more interesting and exciting life than you otherwise would live. Try not to let your anxiety tarnish this great benefit.