The risks of flying

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

Fear of flying is common — and often exacerbated by news stories about rare but dramatic plane crashes. However, you are far more likely to die in a car accident. Is fear of flying rational?

  • Go on, then. Is 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. (Think of the two Boeing 737 Max crashes, which led to the planes being grounded across the world.)

    Plane disappearances generate even more news. Five years after it disappeared, there are still regular news stories about what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

    But the fact that plane crashes are rare is why they make the news in the first place. Not every car crash is reported by the media because they are much more common.

    Ironically, one academic estimated that the 9/11 attacks later 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 guide 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. Pilots are highly trained and always work in pairs. Aircraft undergo very rigorous safety tests to ensure that 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 techniques to help you.

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 Organisation.
One academic
Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Apps
A popular example is Headspace, which helps users achieve a state of mindfulness so that they can calmly accept their feelings.
Myths
For example, contrary to popular belief, 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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The risks of flying
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