My first favorite smell was jet fuel.
It’s totally corny, but it’s true. Even now it gives me butterflies, taking me back to Newark Airport in the early 80s as a pigtailed 5 year old, overcome with glee, waiting to board an Eastern Airlines flight to visit family in Colorado. Flying was always more exciting to me than the trip itself. I’m grateful to have retained that joy through all my years of doing it professionally, even with the stresses of airports, TSA and standby travel. I can’t help but love it.
For others, however, flying is an anxiety-filled, terrifying experience, and these people are far from alone. It’s estimated that as many as 40% of the population suffer from some degree of aviophobia, or a fear of flying. These fears can be abstract, or based on specific factors such as the threat of terrorism or the functionality of the aircraft.
Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot and author of New York Times bestseller Cockpit Confidential, finds an audience with the latter group. Smith’s book as well as his website, Ask The Pilot, have been excellent resources for those seeking to gain an understanding of the technical aspects of flight along with the basic workings of the aviation world. The overwhelming concern for white knuckle flyers, he says, is turbulence. Passengers can take heart in knowing that most of what rattles nerves in people are seen by the pilots and crew as merely a nuisance, and not a real danger. “It’s true that, in rare cases, airplanes have been damaged and people have been injured by rough air. But the kind of rough air that is apt to do that is something most flyers will never experience.” Smith goes on to explain that even if one WERE to experience a severe turbulence event, it’s extremely unlikely to be an emergency. “One thing that I like to say to people is that the number of airplanes in the whole history of commercial aviation that have crashed because of turbulence is so small – and I study these things very closely – that offhand, I can’t even think of one.” The real threat of turbulence is injury due to non-compliance with the seatbelt sign, so as long as you’re buckled in when you should be, there’s not a great risk to your safety – just to your comfort, and perhaps the Bloody Mary you’ve just shelled out $8 for.
Smith says the greatest error phobic flyers make is paying too much attention to the news. The media sensationalizes airline incidents to a frustrating degree, with round-the-clock news outlets filling airtime with uneducated speculation. “The way the media hyperventilates over certain incidents, the perception is that planes are crashing more frequently, when exactly the opposite is true,” he says. “Flying has never been safer than it is nowadays.” In fact, if you want statistics, your chances of perishing in a plane crash are 1 in 4.7 million. (To compare, your chance of dying at a dance party is 1 in 100,000.) Between aircraft design, training programs, and modernized air traffic control systems, the skies today are safer than they’ve ever been.
Today there are many great resources for those whom statistics just aren’t enough. Companies like SOAR
offer in-person counseling along with DVD training. Some airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic, provide their own fear of flying courses and practice flights, along with an inflight audio channel created specifically to ease nerves. Mental health professionals are also increasingly studying aviophobia, and specialists such as Suhadee Henriquez, who is not just a clinical psychotherapist but an active flight attendant, address the more emotional aspects of these fears in their counseling.
But the faint of heart can take some simple steps to make their trip go more smoothly. The first is to not be afraid of asking questions of your crew. In my own experience, when a passenger introduces him or herself as skittish, I’m grateful, because I’m able to assist the best I can throughout the flight. And I can tell you that, from what I’ve seen, many pilots are also happy to take people into the cockpit during boarding to make them feel more at ease. (If a pilot refuses to do this for you, however, don’t assume the worst of him or her. You might catch them running down a checklist or talking to ATC, and you surely don’t want to distract your pilot!)
Your seating location, believe it or not, can make a difference in the quality of the flight you’ll have, and I’m not referring to the personality or hygiene habits of your seatmates. (That’s for another article.) Often nervous flyers can be found in the back of the aircraft, but this is where you’ll find the bumpiest ride. The difference can be so great that the pilots sometimes don’t realize that we are strapped into our jumpseats in back, as they are having a much smoother flight in the cockpit! Being farther from the aircraft’s center of gravity will make rough air feel a little bit rougher. (Think of sitting in the back of a bus on a bumpy road.) If turbulence bothers you, aim for seats near the middle or front. Even if they cost a little bit extra, it might be worth it.
Another tactic to avoid is getting blind drunk to cope with the flight. Personally, I think it’s counterproductive, as should a frightening situation pop up (hitting an air pocket, perhaps), normal judgment and logic are skewed. Has drunkenness kept you from texting your ex at 3am? It doesn’t always bring out our most reasonable side. It’s better to feel a bit anxious and relatively sober than completely obliterated and sobbing into the arm of the stranger next to you.
All in all, air travel is the safest form of transportation by a long shot. Flying doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience. Ask questions, don’t get caught up in the news, and get the help best suited to your needs. Then maybe one day you can, like me, appreciate the smell of jet fuel. (Just please, do so responsibly.)
[Photo: Ron Doctor, Ph.D]