Flight Attendant Tips to Overcome Fear of Flying
As a flight attendant, I meet a good number of passengers who are afraid of flying. This fear usually increases during turbulence. Most of the time the passenger is able to remain calm enough to not disturb others around them, but occasionally the fear overtakes them. I even had a passenger once scream, “We’re going to die!!!” What do I do in these situations? How do I help fearful passengers calm down? Here are the ways I try to help my passengers overcome their fear of flying:
First I want to tell you about my most fearful passenger I ever had, and how I helped him calm down. Before we even finished boarding, we knew this passenger was going to have a tough time. Right when he came onboard, he asked, “Is it too late to buy extra life insurance? I forgot to buy extra in the airport!” We were flying on the 767-200, 3-class service, and I was working in business class, left side. He was sitting in business class on the right side. The flight attendant working on that side offered me $20 to swap places with her, she knew the man would be more drama than she could handle. I swapped with her and the flight began without incident. About an hour into the flight we went through an area of turbulence. The seatbelt sign came on and I began to walk through the cabin to check that everyone had fastened their seatbelt (as required by the FAA). The turbulence got a little worse, to the point where I needed to hold onto the seats to keep my balance. My fearful passenger grabbed his armrests and started screaming, “We’re going to die!!!” I rushed over to him, grabbed his shoulders, and told him, “It’s going to be okay. You need to calm down!”
He took a deep breath and said, “Okay…maybe I should take another Zanax.” “I don’t know, sir, maybe you should. But you need to stop yelling and you need to calm down.” He took another deep breath, said, “Okay, I guess as long as I see that you’re not scared then I don’t have to be.” I wanted him to understand that even if I did get scared, he could still trust that he was safe. I told him, “Actually, even if I am knocked to the ground by turbulence and break my leg, as long as you are sitting with your seatbelt on, you will be safe.” He did take another Xanax and was able to relax enough to enjoy the rest of the flight. He offered me a tip at the end of the flight, knowing that he was a little more work than the typical passenger.
The thing about fear of flying is that it is mostly irrational. People know this, they know the chance of a flight catastrophe is slim, but they fear it just the same. These are the things I tell my passengers when they confess to me they are afraid of flying:
During turbulence some people begin to fear the plane will drop out of the sky. I tell them to imagine they are in a boat, riding the waves. The boat is built to ride the waves, just as the plane is built to ride the air “waves”. In fact, the plane is even safer in turbulence, even extreme turbulence, than a boat is in extreme weather. When you imagine the plane as a boat, it suddenly seems less scary as you realize that the rocking and rolling is a normal part of the ride.
In one of my flight attendant training classes we watched a video of the stress test that every airplane goes through before ever flying. The airplane is put in a huge wind tunnel room and winds stronger than a tornado are created. In other words, conditions that the airplane you are in would never be put through are tested. In the video you see the wings of the airplane flexing up and down, which at first can seem a little scary. But then you realize that the flexing is what keeps the wings from snapping right off. So it’s a good thing, like a palm tree flexing in a hurricane. It’s what keeps it from being knocked down. Knowing that the plane is built to withstand conditions far more extreme than what you would ever encounter might help. Trust that you are safe when you are in your seat with your seatbelt fastened.
Most people know these facts, but when fear hits, it can be hard to recall them. Before you fly, give yourself a refresher on these statistics:
I asked my friends and fans what things helped them overcome their fear of flying. One of our readers, Mike Stratton (writer at Mike’s Place: Travel Adventures of Mike Stratton), who has flown 525,000 miles (and never once been in an airplane accident), had this to contribute: (edited to fit blog style)
You could fly every day for something like 25,000 years without being in an accident, and when (if) you are [in an accident], chances are you would survive. The great myth is that aviation accidents are destined to be fatal, but the odds are anyone involved in an aviation accident is more likely to survive than perish.
Regulation, Oversight and Standards of aircraft care are very stringent: Every 6 years or so an airplane undergoes a “D” Check, where it is essentially stripped down to bare metal and inspected thoroughly over a 2 month period and then rebuilt, like new. Flight systems are engineered with multiple redundancies, with many layers of flight safety built into both planes themselves and air traffic control. A plane can take off on one engine, can fly on one engine, and can generate its own power in the event of a loss of electrical power, a RAT (Ram Air Turbine) to thank for that. The aviation industry is much safer today compared to 1985, 1975, 1965, etc. Satellites and communication and sophisticated computers keep the highways in the sky flowing more efficiently and safely.
“Tell them not to worry, and enjoy the ride, because flying is one of the great joys and benefits of living in the 21st Century.” -CSK reader Mike Stratton
Your odds of dying from a fall down the stairs? One in 157,300, according to this post on air safety in The Economist. David Ropeik, a Risk Communication instructor at Harvard University, found in 2006 that the odds of dying in a jet airplane crash are one in 11 million. (source: International Business Times). Maybe we should focus on holding the handrails when walking down the stairs.
(The graphic here says that one in 8,015 die in a plane crash. It’s important to note that the statistic here includes ALL aircraft, not jet airplanes only. The chance of dying in a jet airplane crash is only one in 11 million. Still, the chance of being killed in a motor vehicle crash is one in 112. Big difference no matter which number you use, and most of us don’t get anxiety when driving cars.)
If none of these ideas helps you, here are some additional articles and resources to help you overcome your fear of flying:
Confession: I’m Terrified of Flying Even frequent flyers have this fear. Travel blogger NomadicMatt shares his experience and tips:
Book: SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying (Amazon Affiliate link) I have heard from many passengers that they overcame their fear of flying after going through SOAR. Below is a review and information on the Pilot who developed the program. I haven’t read this myself, but the many positive reviews are testament that it works quite well.
“SOAR is more than a program of effective exercises to treat fear of flying. SOAR provides a relevant and understandable explanation of how the nervous system—as it works outside of awareness to protect us—overreacts and puts us into a state of anxiety when flying. SOAR provides the toolkit to educate the part of the brain that is below consciousness and involved in regulating anxiety to more accurately evaluate risk related to flying.” —Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina, author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation
About the Author
Captain Tom Bunn L.C.S.W. worked on the first Fear of Flying program at Pan Am and founded SOAR in 1982. He is a licensed therapist, and lives with his wife Marie.