Fear of flying can be controlled, if not always overcome

Published9/20/2008 12:38 PM

Did you hear about the airline strike in Berlin this week? It wasn't the employees who walked out. It was the passengers.

Apparently, an Air Berlin flight scheduled to fly to Portugal had some mechanical difficulties. The passengers deplaned while the problem was fixed. After the passengers re-boarded the plane, the same problem raised its ugly head. This time, the passengers organized. They filled out a petition requesting a new airplane and refused to fly. The passengers won. Fourteen hours later they took off in a different aircraft - if you can call that winning.


Aviaphobia - or in layman's terms, the fear of being stuffed in a metal coffin at 35,000 feet and becoming fish bait after being blown into 35,000 pieces over the Atlantic Ocean - is nothing new. And with flights going down in both Spain and Russia recently, who can blame passengers for being a bit skittish?

But what's unusual about this incident is that aviaphobia affected all the passengers. They were all afraid to fly. Usually, it isn't epidemic unless you've been asked to don your life jacket and assume a crash position. In which case, the fear is more than justified and not a phobia at all.

On every flight, there are usually a couple of passengers with sweaty palms who chant verses to themselves. Most often, it's the first-time fliers.

Once, when I was deadheading on a flight to Detroit, I found myself seated in the midst of a whole convent of nuns. They had never flown and were quite nervous. I told them there was nothing to worry about, just do what I do. When I buckled my seat belt, they buckled their seat belts. When I read the landing card, they read the landing cards. All went well until I lost an earring. When I leaned over to pick it up, they all leaned over. Soon the entire coach section was seated in a crash position.

But the passengers you ache for are the travelers who fly often and always with their hearts in their throats. Statistics tell them flying is safer than riding in their cars. Their chances of crashing on their bicycles are higher than crashing in an airplane - even if they don't ride a bicycle. Unfortunately, reasoning doesn't solve the problem. But there are ways to fight the fear.

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Take Dick Jury for instance. Ten years ago, before every flight, Dick sipped martinis until he was flying higher than the aircraft. He had an intense fear of going to pieces (both literally and figuratively) every time he boarded an airplane. Dick purchased audio tapes from Seminars On Aero-Anxiety Relief (SOAR) and through some intense work overcame his fear of flying.

Donna Montgomery, a sales manager for a large company, flies weekly for her job. Her body became so tense from flying, she developed a facial tic. Now Donna thinks happy thoughts. Before takeoff, she imagines herself rocking in a hammock on a beach with the waves washing gently on the shore. It usually works. But not always.

"Fear of flying is something you never completely get over," said Donna. "I keep it in check, but when the plane hits severe turbulence, my gentle wave turns into a tsunami and the tick comes back."

And Dick still stops for a couple of belts before he boards a plane.

Gail Todd, a free-lance writer,worked as a flight attendant for more than 30
years. She can be reached via e-mail at gailtodd@aol.com.

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