Should I be scared of flying?

Going places: Mortality rates for modes of transport vary widely across countries.

It has been 10 years since the “Miracle on the Hudson”, when a pilot successfully landed his plane on New York’s famous river after it lost power. The fear of flying is very common, but is it rational?

  • What happened?

    Ten years ago, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger saved the lives of all of his passengers when he crash-landed into the Hudson river in New York. Ever since, it has been referred to as the “Miracle on the Hudson”.

  • What caused the crash?

    Both of the plane’s engines failed after a flock of birds flew into the aircraft as it was taking off from New York’s LaGuardia airport, bound for North Carolina. Realising he would not be able to make it back to the runway, Sully took the decision to land on the river.

  • Is a fear of flying rational?

    In a sense, no. Flying is very safe. Nobody died on a commercial jet in 2017. In contrast, around 1.25 million people around the world perish in road accidents every year. Yet fear of flying is widespread — it affects between one-twentieth and one-third of people, depending on who you ask. Even pilots get it.

  • Why?

    Put simply: humans are not fully rational. A combination of genetic and environmental factors can leave us with a phobia. A major environmental driver of fear of flying, or aviophobia, is the way plane crashes are reported. These rare accidents always make headlines, accompanied by dramatic images of smoking wreckage, which link flying with death in people’s minds. Plane disappearances generate even more news.

    Ironically, one academic estimated that the 9/11 attacks caused 1,565 road deaths, as many Americans temporarily avoided flights and drove instead.

  • Any other factors?

    Of course. Humans are not birds, and the awareness of being very high above the ground may make some uneasy. The cabin’s cramped space can trigger claustrophobia. What’s more, passengers have to surrender complete control over their fate to strangers. Then there is the fact that, should something go wrong, death is highly probable, yet likely to come after an awful delay.

  • I’m scared of flying. What can I do?

    There are various coping strategies. Some medicate: they take anti-anxiety pills, sleeping tablets or just a glass of wine. Others meditate: apps that lead users through soothing breathing exercises are popular. Airlines suggest some simple measures, like asking the crew for reassurance or sitting near the wing (where turbulence is less noticeable).

  • What if that doesn’t work?

    Fear of flying is often fuelled by a lack of understanding about aviation. Airlines offer short courses that explain how planes work and dispel myths about flying; Virgin Atlantic claims a 98% success rate. Very nervous fliers can seek treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnosis. Some therapists now use virtual reality headsets to send their patients on a simulated flight.

    Others take more unusual approaches. After surviving a harrowing plane accident, one American businessman confronted his anxiety by learning to fly.

  • Why are plane crashes so rare?

    The aviation industry is very strictly regulated. Planes contain more engines than they need, in case one fails. They are equipped with sophisticated technology that detects dangerous weather and other planes, enabling the pilots to steer clear. Those pilots are highly trained, and always work in pairs. Aircraft undergo very rigorous safety tests to ensure they can handle anything they might encounter in the sky.

  • So is it wrong to be scared of flying?

    Phobias are common, and nothing to be ashamed of. If you have a fear of going airborne, remember that there are many things you can do about it.

You Decide

  1. Should the media stop reporting plane crashes?

Activities

  1. You have been asked to interview a pilot. Come up with 10 questions for them.

Subjects

Word Watch

1.25 million
According to the World Health Organization.
One academic
Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Apps
A popular example is Headspace, which helps users to achieve a state of mindfulness and calmly accept their feelings.
Myths
For example, contrary to what many believe, lightning almost never causes major damage to aircraft.
Cognitive behavioural therapy
A form of therapy that involves only talking. The therapist helps the patient to identify the individual thoughts behind their major problems, and to learn to cope with each of them in turn.

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Should I be scared of flying?
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