It’s surprising how many people out there are afraid of flying. Many of those I encounter tell me that what worries them the most is incompetent mechanics on the ground or cost-cutting CEOs sending an airplane with maintenance problems up into the sky.
Everything has a price. Just as objects have financial costs, the choices we make come with emotional and psychological costs. Marriage, for example, means having less control over your independence, but (hopefully) the satisfaction of intimacy with another person.
Flying comes with a psychological cost. Some people are focused more on terrorism. Others don’t like being cooped up. Others dread flying for fear of mechanical failure and human error.
It’s important to point out that airlines — at least as long as they are required to make a profit and stand accountable for passengers’ lives — have a self-serving interest in sending up a safe airplane every time. For example, in the mid-1990s, U.S. Airways experienced a number of crashes. In response to the naturally bad publicity, they overhauled their safety team and advertised that they were making safety “priority one.” Although accidents are always possible, that particular airline did not suffer a major crash for many years thereafter. Similar examples are everywhere.
Ironically, we’re safer in the air than in many other places. There are well over 30,000 commercial flights every day — more than 10 million a year. And the overwhelming majority land safely. These examples could, theoretically, reduce a person’s fears, but I find that they usually don’t. Why? Because, for most people, fear of flying raises issues of control. When you board an airplane, you’re forced to confront the fact that you have no control. You are placing your life totally in the judgment of the pilots, controllers and the airline executives. There’s no denying this powerful emotion every time you walk down the Jetway.
When you drive a car, you have more control over what happens. You’re the one driving, and you’re the one responsible for making sure maintenance is adequate. But, when you step onto a jetliner, you surrender that control, and that’s what makes you anxious. Every bump, every noise, reminds you of that fact.
There are various techniques for treating the symptoms: anti-anxiety medication, deep breathing, happy thoughts, rational thoughts (i.e., based on facts, not fears), focusing on what you will do when the plane lands, keeping yourself busy, using alcoholic beverages (careful, now…), and so forth. But these approaches only address the symptoms. The fear will return next time.
If you’re interested in tackling the root causes rather than just the symptoms, work on the issues of control and emotional cost in your daily life. Ask yourself, every day, how you can become more accepting of things over which you have no control. Ask yourself how you can better accept not only the fiscal costs of things, but more importantly, the psychological costs. Keep a journal, and note when you handle these situations more (or less) rationally than usual. Practice letting go. Sometimes a skilled therapist or qualified counselor can help reinforce your efforts.
Learn to distinguish the probable from the merely possible. A plane crash is always possible. So are car crashes and lightning strikes. But, under normal circumstances, none of these are likely. The overwhelming majority of flights on the overwhelming majority of days occur without incident. To remain in business, airlines have every incentive to make sure this is the case.
So we pay the emotional cost of the convenience of flying by learning to relinquish control over certain things. Doing so will be difficult in the beginning, but the reward can be a more interesting and exciting life. Consider the alternatives. If the effort is worth it to you, then you can make it happen.
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