So you’ve heard all the claims that flying in a commercial jet is safer than driving on the average American freeway and yet, you’re still afraid to fly. Your head may tell you it’s safe, but your gut (the queasy one), tells you it’s still possible to plummet to earth in a ball of fire if you fly through a thunderstorm. Let’s skip past the tedious lectures about aeronautical physics and focus on what can help you cope with being a better flier.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not a completely fearful flier. I’m not afraid of heights, and for the most part, I can look out the window and enjoy a smooth flight or at least tolerate the ones I’m on, which happens about every two weeks. My biggest problem is turbulence, which I know both logically and intuitively will not crash the plane, but it often makes me a little nauseous when it’s at its worst. When the plane is bouncing around, it makes me check my watch a lot and the minutes pass like hours.
One of the more popular apps for fear of flying is from SOAR, Inc., and it’s found at www.fearofflying.com. Run by former commercial airline pilot and psychotherapist Tom Bunn, the app offers free information and paid mini-courses via video to address the usual fearful flying concerns: anxiety, loss of control, claustrophobia, and panic. Bunn offers realistic information in a no-nonsense way. I’ve found his detailed discussion of the weather phenomena that causes turbulence to be helpful.
He says turbulence is literally not a safety issue for pilots, because they know that even the roughest air barely moves the plane off its path. Watch your drink during a bumpy flight, he says; it barely jiggles in the glass. Turbulent air hardly registers on the flight instruments and the plane itself may only move a few inches up or down. The idea that the plane “drops out of the sky” is a misnomer and one you should stop believing. Here is my collection of tips, gathered over 45 years of climbing aboard those big metal tubes.
Choosing a seat in the center of the plane tends to be the smoothest place to sit, since it positions you at the center of gravity point for the plane. The back of the plane is the bumpiest and sitting near the rear restrooms is no treat for your nose either.
When the flight is turbulent, look out the window to keep your literal and mental perspective. Watch the horizon – unless you’re on a night flight or it’s cloudy – and you’ll notice Tom Bunn’s point: the horizon doesn’t move and the plane doesn’t move very much in relation to the horizon.
Better flying through chemistry can help too. Taking OTC pills like Bonine or Dramamine can help and I find if I take the pills an hour before the flight and every four hours for longer flights, they cut my anxiety, minimize my nausea, and probably have a useful placebo effect. Many nervous fliers have found relief from low-dose anti-anxiety medications from their physicians. Tell your doctor you only need a prescription for two to four pills, to get you through your trip. I’ve found no relief from ginger pills or those cloth bands with the buttons that supposedly press on your air sickness-prevention meridians at the bend of your wrist.
Keep your head still and your eyes closed when the ride gets rough. Trying to read or watch your phone, tablet, or laptop screen can make you queasy quickly. Closing your eyes cuts the stimulus sent to your brain and keeping your head as still as you can keeps the fluid in your inner ear from getting sloshed around, which contributes to nausea. Unlike a cruise ship, where bad weather may last for days (or the whole trip, if you’re cursed like me), rough air usually smooths out. Pilots want you to have a nice ride and it keeps their flight attendants safe too, so they are always looking for smoother elevations via the radio and their weather radar.
Anxiety breathing is short, shallow, and rapid. Stress-managed breathing is deep, slow, and focused. The more the flight makes you anxious, the more you need to manage your breathing. Close you eyes, slow down your breathing, and ride the moments out. Repeating the mantra “This Too Shall Pass” can help.
Teach yourself to mediate before, during, and even after the flight. Besides slowing down your breathing, it calms your nerves, cuts your anxiety, and keeps you focused on the moment, rather than the rare possibility of a problem on the plane.
Use as many distraction techniques as you can. Do a crossword, word search, or Sudoku puzzle, listen to music, try to sleep, listen to the chatter from other passengers, play with your phone, or do what US Navy SEALS do on long flights: count backwards from 1000 to 1 and start again when you get to 1.
Invest in a pair of high-quality noise-cancelling headphones. Listening to books on tape or music from your smartphone, without being distracted by the engine noise or chatty passengers nearby can pass the time and keep your mind off the flight.
Stay away from booze, greasy, or spicy foods. Eat easy-to-digest foods and hydrate often with water.
Get your cues from the flight attendants. When you see them going about their business even in choppy air, go about yours and make yourself a peaceful passenger. Even if the pilots ask them to sit through bumpy air, you’ll notice they check their phones, read a magazine, or chat calmly with each other.
Trust the experience and wisdom of the pilots. If you talk to them off the record, they’ll say that after years of experience in the cockpit, both in the military, where many learned, and on the job, flying is kind of like driving a big, expensive bus. As one of my pals who worked for a large aerospace firm told me, “Six feet off the ground at takeoff to six feet above the ground at landing, they just turn on the autopilot.” As SOAR’s Tom Bunn says in the video I watched, he leaves the cockpit in the roughest air to use the bathroom, knowing that his co-pilot has things well in hand and turbulence is really not a safety factor.
Stop reading or watching news stories about turbulence injuries. There are more than 5,000 flights in the air around the world at any moment. The majority have no issues with severe turbulence. Most people who are injured on rough flights are violating Cardinal Flight Rule #1- Keep Your Seat Belt Fastened At All Times.
Pay the extra money and sit in First Class. Sometimes the ticket price difference is extreme; sometimes it’s a few hundred dollars difference. Sitting in First Class is quieter, certainly more comfortable, usually crying baby-free, and the food and service is better. You get on first, you get off first, and your luggage often gets put on the conveyor belt first too. If it’s a bumpy flight, you can cope better in First then in the middle seat in the back.
Change your attitude from “I hate this” to “I can tolerate this” to “This is fine and I will be fine.”
Dr. Steve Albrecht is a keynote speaker, author, podcaster, and trainer. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessments, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He is board certified in HR, security, coaching, and threat management. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht