It’s October 15th and Alija Kucuk is preparing for his private jet rental flight from JFK airport to Palm Beach International in Florida. He is headed to Miami, Florida for a weekend of touring the city. Kucuk has an intense fear of flying and to try and calm his nerves, he takes some Xanax and then starts drinking. By the time he’s on the flight, he’s a mess, and the subject of one of the more infamous air rage incidents in recent times. His intense fear of flying led to an extreme attempt to knock himself out, which failed, turning into an on air brawl.
The Psychology of the Fear of Flying and How to Overcome It
Kucuk is not the only person to have turned a fear of flying into air rage while in a plane. Many more avoid flying wherever possible, travelling by car or train to far off places in order to avoid going up in the air. Some famous cases include Whoopi Goldberg who drives from state to state, and Sean Bean, who climbed New Zealand mountains to avoid helicopter rides while filming his part as Boromir in Lord of the Rings. What causes this fear of flying and can it be overcome? This guide attempts to answer both of these questions.
Part 1: A Fear Of Flying
What are the root causes of the fear of flying that presents itself in some people but not others. In this section we consider whether it is a phobia or a rational fear. Then we take a look at a number of triggers and how the psychology of a fear of flying works.
Fright Or Phobia?
Is a fear of flying a rational fear or an irrational one? A fear of guns, for example, is wholly rational as is a fear of alligators or tigers. An irrational fear or phobia is a fear of something that is not in itself dangerous such as a fear of spiders (arachnophobia).
In terms of terminology, this paper refers to the condition as a ‘fear of flying’ because no better term has been invented. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a specific phobia as “an anxiety disorder classification that represents unreasonable or irrational fear related to a specific object or situation.”
For this reason, we will not be referring to it as either ‘aerophobia’ or ‘aviophobia,’ which are better transcribed as fearing drafts of air. For the sake of clarity and consistency, we will also refrain from using other common terms including flying phobia and flight phobia.
Fear of Flying Triggers
Our fear of flying can be caused by a wide variety of reasons. These include by rational and irrational concerns. Rational causes can be best defined by the reaction to the 9/11 attacks. After these terrible events, less people bought air tickets and instead chose to drive or use public transport to cover long distances. Similar things have happened after crashes or if certain airlines have a bad safety record. These are rational responses which tend to die down after a period of time or if a company is proven to improve itself.
Such incidences also act as confirmation events for people who fear flying. Constantly reading about the relatively few crashes and disasters reaffirm concerns, but they can also trigger new cases. As Alex Preston has written, “flying is a magnet for our vulnerability, for our fear of death, for our existential panic” and every incidence of failure reminds us how unnatural flying is to human beings.
Others, such as Captain Tom Bunn who has spent three decades developing effective methods for treating fear of flying, believe different triggers may be at play. These can relate to childhood traumas or PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “When an upcoming flight comes to mind, we are bothered by the same things that bothered us in childhood: being alone, powerless, not responded to, and unable to escape.”
In addition, there are strains of thought suggesting other phobias can come into play which cause a fear of flying. Taken at face value, this means any reaction to flying or the thought of flying is a symptom of a wider psychological condition under the DSM’s specific phobia definition. Phobias such as claustrophobia, acrophobia, and agoraphobia have been cited as potential triggers for panic attacks before or during flying.
Existing phobias build into a wider range of anxieties and concerns which may put people off or place them in a difficult psychological position. These include social anxieties caused by crowded conditions and being surrounded by strangers. They also include triggers such as hot, stale air, not being in control of the situation, not knowing the cause of bumps, strange sounds, actions and turbulence, or a lack of trust in unknown air staff and pilots.
The Triumph of Imagination
Captain Tom Bunn highlights the lack of reason or logic in the fear of flying. Afterall, only one in 45,000,000 flights lead to a fatality. If we go back to Alex Preston’s piece highlighting all the incidences he’d read about, you would not think so. Bunn terms it as a triumph of the imagination over reason, showing the ultimate cause is within our own minds.
The man can over dwell on a certain thought or fear. If blended in with a phobia such as claustrophobia, control conditions such as OCD, past traumatic events leading to PTSD, or social anxieties the mind can take those issues and project them onto the idea of flying. It then is unable to escape a spiral of thought, fear, and reaffirmation leading to stress, anxiety, and agitation. Some, like Kucuk try to take medications or drink to solve the problem, but this can often make it worse, leading to a high profile blow out. In most cases, sufferers become so averse to flying they either restrict their own travel or take long overland or sea routes instead.
- Bunn, Tom, 2015, Fear of Flying: Suffering From Imagination, Psychology Today
- Bunn, Tom, 2015, Why It’s So Hard for Anyone to Get Over Fear of Flying, Psychology Today
- LeBeau, Richard T., Glenn, Daniel, et al, 2010, Specific Phobia: A Review of DSM-IV Specific Phobia and Preliminary Recommendations for DSM-V, American Psychiatric Association.
- McMahon, Paula, 2016, Jail for Man who Attacked Flight Attendant, Threatened to Blow Up Flight to S.Florida, Sun Sentinel, FL
- Mouawad, Jad, and Drew, Christopher, 2013, Airline Industry at Its Safest Since the Dawn of the Jet Age, New York Times
- Oakes, Margaret & Bor, Robert, 2010, The Psychology of Fear of Flying (Part 1): A Critical Evaluation of Current Perspectives on the Nature, Prevalence and Etiology of Fear of Flying, Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, Vol.8, Issue 6.
- Preston, Alex, 2014, Fear of Flying: The Spectre That Haunts Modern Life, The Guardian, London
- Richmond, Raymond L., 2013, Fear of Flying, A Guide to Psychology and Its Practice, website
Part 2: Overcoming the Fear of Flying
It is possible to overcome the fear of flying, but it means confronting the underlying cause whether that is through better education over flying safety, understanding your triggers, or your other phobias. This section will cover a few ideas on how to overcome your fears.
For most people with a fear of flying, as we have seen, the cause is linked to the self and the triumph of imagination over reality. This also means that the solution to the problem lies within ourselves and how we both view and approach the world.
The aim is to reduce the release of stress hormones in this situation. When stressed, we produce oxytocin to inhibit the amygdala. If you can reduce your oxytocin production in an airport and when boarding a flight, you will have no problem. There are generally speaking three steps to controlling anxiety:
- – Identify flying as being non-threatening.
- – If there is a threat, take control of the situation – concentrate thought on what you would do if a situation occurred.
- – If control is impossible, escape.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America go further by outlining a wide range of coping strategies. Many of these apply to the fear of flying and can be divided into those which help you at that moment of anxiety, and those which help you in the long term when not immediately faced with flight. They are backed up by Professor Robert Bor, as specialist in the field and author of several books on the subject.
In terms of the moment:
- Think about the destination, not the journey
- Take a time out to meditate
- Challenge negative thoughts
- Stay hydrated
- Limit alcohol and caffeine
- Accept that you cannot control everything
- Welcome humour into the situation
- Maintain a positive attitude
- Talk to the cabin crew
- Plan ahead
Consider the long term solutions too, by practising these, the short term tips for overcoming anxiety will become easier:
- Learn about what is triggering your anxiety
- Study positive information about flying and the fear of flying
- Get involved with other sufferers or aviation groups
- Eat well-balanced meals, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep
- Study yoga and relaxation techniques
- Talk to someone about the problem
- Get educated on flying
Taking the initiative yourself is not for everyone. Do not be afraid to see a psychologist or counsellor so you can find a path for overcoming your fear or deeper anxieties/phobias. This is especially true for PTSD sufferers.
Take a Course
Believe it or not, but many airports and airlines run courses and workshops for people with a fear of flying. Alex Preston found himself on such a course run by Virgin Atlantic. Founded and run by cabin crew and Virgin staff, the course runs a number of seminars aimed at helping people bet flying-related trauma.
These courses, also found in America and Europe, cover the physics of flying, tackle common misconceptions head on, and explain events such as turbulence. They also include relaxation techniques and plenty of reassurance. If you can afford such a course, it is well worth making one part of your education and anxiety focused treatment.
Helping Children Overcome Their Fear
Children can be just as scared of flying as us wary adults. In fact, they can be more scared or suffer from the traumas which develop into a phobia in later life. When examining a child’s fear it is important, according to Roy Benaroch MD, to consider if the fear is part of a larger issue to do with anxiety or a part of other phobias. Or perhaps, it is born out of a lack of understanding of air travel coupled with scare stories.
Flyfright.com and Benaroch agree that the most important thing to do is to talk to your child and to slowly introduce them to the thought of flying. Start a few weeks before a trip, ask how they feel about flying and if they are scared about any aspect of it. Talk them through how planes work and the process of boarding, flying, and landing. Explain what turbulence is, fog and other things which might affect the flight.
- Encouraging your child to talk rather than to cry or throw a tantrum
- Let your child watch real planes
- Let them bring a comfort item
- Bring books, toys and other distractions
- Give them toy airplanes
There are also courses available. Companies such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways offer child friendly courses. The BA course is divided between kids aged 7 to 11, and those aged 11 to 17. All courses are hosted by professional staff and professional counselling teams. If your child is not responding well to education and quiet comfort, consider using a child psychologist to further work through the issues.
You Can Do It Too
Remember Sean Bean? He spent hours climbing mountains to film short scenes as Boromir, the tragic villain-cum-hero of The Fellowship of the Ring. Throughout his life he’d avoided flying wherever possible and especially disliked flying in helicopters.
Filming in New Zealand helped him overcome some elements of his fear by simply giving him no other choice if he was going to fulfill his role. However, the filming of Flightplan (2005), a movie co-starred with Jodie Foster, he put serious effort into overcoming his fear. This involved going to flying school and learning about how planes work. Knowing how resilient they are and racking up the hours have, while not making it much more pleasant for him, have dulled his fear and allowed him to fly more often,
If Sean Bean can do it, then so can you. Take your time, reach out for more information, learn how flying works, take courses, speak to professionals and find ways to calm your mind. Most of all, take the big step of trying it. It will not be easy at first, but as Sean Bean shows, with time, it can become easier.
- ADAA.org, unknown, Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress, Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Benaroch, Roy, 2012, Fear of Flying, The Pediatric Insider, website
- Bor, Robert., Eriksen, Carina., & Oakes, Margaret, 2009, Overcome Your Fear of Flying, Sheldon Press
- British Airways, unknown, Children’s Courses – Flying with Confidence, website
- Davis, Darrell, unknown, Fear of Flying Tips for Children, Flyfright.com
- Jones, Charisse, 2014, Airports Take on Fear of Flying, USA Today
- Unknown, 2005, Q&A with Sean Bean, Phase 9 Entertainment
- Virgin Atlantic, unknown, Flying Without Fear, website
- Walker, Tim, 2009, Why Fear of Flying is Just Plane Stupid, The Independent, London
Part 3: Learning to Love a New Perspective
We have seen that flying is in fact one of the safest forms of transport yet invented. This does not mean that fear should be transplanted from one form to another, but that overcoming the fear of flying can lead to great experiences and a wide range of positives.
By flying, we open up a whole world of travel opportunities taking us beyond the limits of where we come from, whether it be a small, local region or a nation. Yes, it is possible to travel the world without flying, but few have the time or money to attempt such a feat.
Furthermore, let us consider one of the great benefits of flying, especially in helicopters. Being up in the sky offers us a fantastic chance to see both old and new places from a new perspective, looking down at the world we inhabit, seeing the whole vista for the first time, how we connect, live, travel, experience the world and the wider setting for our homes.