Fear of flying — symptoms and how to overcome them

Imagine. A half asleep six-year-old on an international flight shaken awake as the aircraft plunges several feet, half-eaten food trays hitting the ceiling and crashing around, a service trolley trundling down the aisle.
No, it’s not a scene from a Hollywood thriller. It’s my first flying experience.
I remember opening my eyes to this as my mother struggled to put the seat belt on me. I don’t recollect when and how the pilot managed to steady the aircraft, I had fallen asleep in a matter of minutes due to the effects of an anti-histamine I was given earlier to fight air-sickness induced nausea, but we had safely landed at Dubai International Airport. I couldn’t be more grateful to the tiny sugar-coated pill.
We’ve recounted the story several times now and it’s lost much of its effect in 36 years but each time I fly and there is turbulence, I unconsciously clutch the armrest and pray.
No, I don’t have fear of flying but I’m sure subconsciously there are remnants of that incident.
Angelo Rodrigues (real name withheld on request) is a Dubai resident who despite medical and psychiatric help hasn’t fully conquered his phobia. Even for a short 3-4 hour flight he made sure he had someone with him at all times.

A recent survey commissioned by British Airways in the UAE showed that one in four residents have a fear of flying.
“I usually get anxious a month before I am to fly,” Rodrigues told tabloid! “The first few times I had panic attacks, both before and in the plane. I’ve tried hypnotherapy and psychological counselling but that didn’t help. Then a psychiatrist diagnosed me with agoraphobia, which is a feeling of being trapped and I was put on medication.”
Rodrigues is not alone, says Donna Allright, a specialised counsellor who helps deal with anxiety and feelings of panic when flying. Donna with her husband Steve, a British Airways pilot and training captain, holds workshops around the world to help those suffering from this phobia. Their next session in Dubai is on October 20.
“There’s nothing more comforting than realising you are not alone in a particular fear and you can visibly see people’s shoulders drop down as they relax at our sessions,” said Donna. “These are normal people such as businessmen, homemakers and mothers — and they all share the same fears. Our job is to try and make the atmosphere very reassuring within the room and we have this unwritten rule that no question is silly or embarrassing. We have probably heard in some form or other every single question on the subject.
“Steve, myself and others who work on these courses, take every question seriously. Our aim is to break the barriers among them,” she said.
When we informed Anjana Suthar — a Dubai-based homemaker who realised she had fear of flying from her first flight when she was 20 — about the workshop, her first question surprisingly was: “Oh, there are others who feel this way?”
“My biggest fear is I can’t swim and when I am travelling with my kids it’s doubled. I travel twice or thrice a year, and mostly with my children. It’s not as bad when my husband is with us. If he’s with us, I can manage 8-10 hours of flying also,” Suthar said.
Unlike Rodrigues, who even tried a simulator class known as a desensitisation programme to remove fear of flying, Suthar preferred fighting her fear on her own and feels she’s overcoming it slowly.
“I read, watch movies or see that my eight-year-old is eating or doing something. This usually takes up my two and half hours from Dubai to Mumbai. I’ve also made sure my children are good swimmers. Even though I do not have visible symptoms, such as panicking, the fear is always there. How will I protect my kids if there’s an emergency landing? I know it’s rare but the fear is always there.”
Despite a spate of air tragedies, including Malaysian Airlines MH17 and MH370 — probably the most talked of them all — earlier this year, it’s said air travel is still the safest mode of transportation.
“Simply by statistics alone we can show air travel is the safest,” said Steve, who has been flying for 24 years, has covered 12,000 flying hours and at present trains and checks other pilots.
“If you see the number of people travelling, there’s an estimated one million people in the air every second. Although the tragedies caused a number of deaths, the statistics is actually small. Yet, we have pages and pages and pages of coverage of two air crashes when at that same time probably ten or hundred times more people died around the world in road accidents. But that does not make the news.
“If you need more evidence, there’s a free app called Flightradar24 which shows live air traffic control where you can see how many aircraft are there in the sky around the world every second. It will give you a scale of just how many tens of thousands of people flying around all the time and all those planes landing safely. Even if they are old planes, they are safe due to the level of maintenance. We explain that on the course how after every flight we do a transit check and daily checks — something similar to the service on your car. Then every week, we have a more intensive check and so on. And this is true for all major airlines around the world.”
Steve said lack of control is an important aspect for many people with fear of flying and it is understandable because their lives are in the hands [of the pilots].
“It’s very important to understand how regulated the flying procedure is and trust us [professionals] because of our recurrent training and the fact that our flying licenses can be revoked if we are not reaching the required standards. As part of our training, we impress on all pilots going through the simulators every six months, we also assess the decision-making process on how much time they have and [how much they] take to make a decision and diagnose the problem, and the options available to them.”
One also should not forget that the cabin crew is trained to handle such situations, so it is important for the nervous passenger to make them aware of his or her condition. “All flying crew has to undergo the Safety Equipment and Procedure (SEP) training every year where they are given basic medical care training. I’ve included a video in the British Airways SEP training which makes them aware of our course and basic techniques such as breathing exercises that can help calm the passengers. There’s only one or two [passengers] who panic. The crew is also trained in av-med (aviation medical training) and there is very comprehensive medical care on every flight. We have tranquillisers too. Even though half the medical kit can only be administered by a doctor, believe it or not 90 per cent of all flights inevitably have a doctor on board. But the other half of the kit is just basic technique and procedure,” said Steve.
“What’s most important is not to forget the pilots have gone through professional and technical training to handle the plane during turbulence, etc,” said Donna.
“Our job on the course is not just to put these safety nets in place but to show them how they can overcome discomfort when they fail. It is the counsellor’s job to use this information along with relaxation techniques to help participants gain confidence and re-train how their brain is thinking because for so many years it’s been made to think in a certain way.”
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