Media hysteria is creating new crop of fearful flyers: experts

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Hard numbers illustrating just how many people suffer from aerophobia, or a fear of flying, are hard to come by. In 1980 Boeing commissioned a research study which concluded that about one in three adults experience some level of anxiety when it comes to air travel and that a full 18% of people are so frightened by the prospect that they shun flying entirely or reserve air travel for when all other possibilities have been exhausted. Many experts believe these numbers are still accurate, while others say the figures are on the rise.

Several years ago Dr. Nathan Feiles, a New York-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist, incorporated a fear of flying program into his repertoire. He based it on principles he discovered during his own journey towards victory over the fear. Dr. Feiles’ self-defined program has proven very successful with others as well. Today just under half of his patients visit him seeking help with this specific anxiety.

“It’s very rare that a fear of flying is just about the fear of flying. Because in order for that to be the case, a person would have to have already had a very negative experience with flying, and many fear flying even if they’ve never flown before,” he explains. “The airplane tends to hold a lot of anxiety for people. What happens is that people who fear flying tend to push [their pre-existing] anxieties into a corner. Somebody grows up and they go through the daily motions of life not acknowledging their anxieties and then suddenly they are very afraid to fly and they don’t quite get why.”

Dr. Feiles also believes that the way in which mainstream media covers the air transport industry is not doing these people any favors. Instead, it often gives them something to latch onto, validating irrational fears.

“It would be nice if there wasn’t such weight put on every single possible incident,” he tells RGN. “And by that I don’t mean the actual tragedies because those are tragedies and they are going to be reported. But they don’t need to report when somebody is removed for causing a disturbance, they don’t need to report whenever a plane had to be diverted to a different airport, these are very standard operating procedures things that are being reported as if there was a big, almost fatal incident. I would say that these things need to be tuned down … it’s kind of like reporting that somebody got pulled over for speeding.”

Tim Benjamin is anther recovered fearful flyer who now devotes much of his time to helping others through his free website fearofflyingschool.com. With five-digit monthly traffic, the portal is a testament to just how many people are uncomfortable with air travel. Last week, when Germanwings flight 9525 crashed into a mountainside in the French Alps, an event being prosecuted as a murder, there was an 82% increase in visitors.

“There are a lot of people who are freaked out,” says the former journalist and online marketing expert, who agrees with Dr. Feiles. “The mainstream media will deliberately cover airline accidents in a hysterical sort of way, not because journalists and media organizations are bad people, but because they are under huge pressure to maximise online traffic or viewership figures. This is a big issue and something I address specifically on my web site.”

A 1982 study by research and consulting firm Dean and Whitaker estimated that fear of flying cost the domestic air travel industry $1.6 billion in 1978. More recently (in 2009), researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology surveyed 335 randomly selected Israeli students for a unique study on the topic. It concluded that a person’s level of anxiety about flying correlates strongly to a preference for scheduled carriers over charter or low-cost airlines, an inclination to select routes with fewer connections (though this was true for nearly all of those surveyed) and a willingness to pay more for direct flights or flights with what they perceived as “safe” attributes.

So how can airlines create a reputation as being fearful flyer-friendly? Aside from training crew to spot and help tense travelers and incorporating mood lighting (and calming music) into the cabin environment, the surprising answer could be found in inflight entertainment.

“It would be great for fearful flyers if there was a channel on the [seatback screen, or streaming IFE] that would explain how airplanes work, how flying works, what all the sounds are what all the sensations are – exactly what’s happening during the flight so they can understand and learn about it,” says Dr. Feiles. “They could also have a component on that same channel where it runs through how to deal with anxiety or how to deal with perceived threats or fantasy thoughts … that would be a really great tool and I think that whatever airline starts to do that would see a lot fearful flyers flying with them.

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3 Comments

  1. Brian

    “It would be great for fearful flyers if there was a channel on the [seatback screen, or streaming IFE] that would explain how airplanes work, how flying works, what all the sounds are what all the sensations are – exactly what’s happening during the flight so they can understand and learn about it,” says Dr. Feiles.

    BA already does this on their IFE. On my last BA flight I watched it out of boredom.

  2. RalfW

    I am the odd duck that gets nervous about flying but also fly voluntarily 20 to 30 segments per year. I love to vacation and travel, and if the weather is nice I am practically glued to the window looking for landmarks, watching the weather, watching the flaps extend/retract, and such.

    So, I don’t let my anxieties stop me. That said, I find that flights that have an active “airshow” aka moving map (preferably with access to basic metrics like altitude, airspeed, eta) calms me significantly.

    Delta has made basic flight tracking available on their iPhone app which connects to the inflight wifi without cost, so now even fights without seatback IFE tend to have this info available (though gogo is by no means 100% reliable). SWA has something similar. It’s a boon to me as a mild worrier.