35,000 Feet and a Thin Sheet of Metal
"You define a good flight by negatives: you didn't get hijacked, you didn't crash, you didn't throw up, you weren't late, you weren't nauseated by the food. So you are grateful." – Paul Theroux
For those poshly seated in first class, air travel is all about luxury: extensive leg room, complimentary cocktails, a cache of pillows and blankets, and bonus frequent-flier miles. For the rest of us, air travel is usually about distracting ourselves with mindless magazines and survival – any flight that lands safely is a good flight. Regardless of socio-aeronautical status, a large portion of Americans spend the duration of their flight panicking that Murphy’s Law could be invoked at any minute.
These fears range to include engine failure, excessive turbulence, landing gear malfunction, and terrorism. Unfortunately, this last cause has become much more prevalent since the September 11th attacks. (The number of Americans afraid to fly jumped nearly 25% in the aftermath of the tragedy.) Much of this has origins in the racial paranoia that has led to unsubstantiated stereotyping and further influenced the racial and religious divide that splinters this country.
On the other hand, some people are simply terrified to fly because of the fear of the unknown. For instance, whenever I fly with my sister, she spends most of the flight white-knuckled, nauseated, and fixated on her own mortality and that of her daughter. After safely touching down and collecting our luggage, she claims, without fail, that the flight was the worst experience she’s ever had on a plane. While occasionally prone to fraidy-catness, her fear of flying is legitimate and shared, at least to some degree, by as many as one in six Americans according to industry estimates.
Aviophobia is not a disease itself, but rather a symptom of other types of phobias and conditions. Stemming from severe anxiety, the fear of flying is often influenced by claustrophobia (fear of tight spaces), acrophobia (fear of heights), or agoraphobia (fear of public, wide-open areas).
For some, the fear is so intense that they abstain from air travel entirely. These cases are usually the result of an especially traumatic experience or a negative association with flight regarding an otherwise unrelated occurrence, such as the memory of flying to attend a funeral or a troublesome court proceeding. Most of us, however, recognize the vitality of flight and engage in air travel despite our misgivings.
The media’s insistence on instilling fear in our citizens is also a large contributor to aviophobia. Statistically, flying is by far the safest way to travel. Between 2007 and 2008, over 750 million passengers traveled on nearly 11 million major airline flights without a single passenger fatality. By comparison, there were roughly 44,000 people killed in automobile crashes in 2007 alone! Perhaps a more telling figure is that 1-in100 people will die in an auto accident, while only 1-in 20,000 will die in an air travel accident.
Despite these figures, corporate news outlets are sure to place a considerable amount of resources and effort into covering any flight-related incident. It seems that I hear about a recent in-flight emergency within a few days of every single date that I'm scheduled to fly. The media reports on the "chaotic" airline industry almost daily, even though there have been very few flight-related deaths in recent years.
I’ll be the first to admit that I suffer from mild anxiety each and every time I get on an airplane. I pay meticulous attention to the pre-flight instructions, and I usually tighten my seat belt to the point of near asphyxiation before taking off. Usually, though, my nervousness normally subsides by the time we reach our cruising altitude thanks to a Benadryl and a good book. However, not everyone can relax during the flight, so here are a few tips for people who suffer from aviophobia:
- Know that flying is SAFE – Just refer to the stats above if you begin to panic.
- Harness your chi – Learn to control your thinking by focusing on positive images and memories, as well as the tasks at hand once you reach your destination.
- Relinquish control – Once you’re in your seat and the main flight door is closed, you’re fully committed to the trip. Trust the equipment, trust your pilot, and you will be fine.
Perhaps the most helpful trick in overcoming a fear of flying is to recognize just how awesome the adventure of aviation really is! Last week, I wrote a piece in which I detailed my youthful affinity for flight, and, although I do get a little anxious whenever I fly, I still think it's an amazing experience that's often taken for granted.
Mankind has envied the birds since we came into modern existence nearly 100,000 years ago, but within the last hundred or so, we’ve joined them, and even surpassed their performance. We’ve perfected the power of flight to such an extent that it is the safest and most effective mode of travel possible. To put the convenience of flight into perspective, when the pilgrims set sail from England to Massachusetts, the voyage lasted two months. Today, a trans-Atlantic trek from London to Boston takes about the length of a Michael Crichton novel.
There is nominal risk involved with flying, but there’s a modicum risk in everything we do. Simply choosing to leave the house in the morning can be a risky proposition for some, but functionality cannot be supplanted by nervous reticence. Earth is a very big place that the Wright brothers were kind enough to shrink for the rest of us. Don’t let a fear of flying keep you from exploring and experiencing all this world has to offer.
Murphy, Tim. “For Fear of Flying, Therapy Takes to the Skies.” The New York Times 24 July
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