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Flying scared: can aviophobia be conquered?

Despite being one of the safest methods of transport in the world, the prospect of flying can still terrify many. But what are the root causes of aviophobia, and what can airports and airlines do to help allay the minds of nervous passengers? Ross Davies reports.

If the statistics are to be believed, aviation has never been safer.

According to the last count taken by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in 2015 there were only 92 commercial airline accidents out of 33 million estimated flights worldwide.

Two years later, the Aviation Safety Network reported there had been no passenger jet crashes or fatalities, worldwide, in 2017 – officially the safest year in the history of commercial airlines. 

Unfortunately, the mainstream media carries little truck with such figures, its fixation trained firmly on air disasters and tragedies – however few and far between they may be. Five years since it vanished into the Indian Ocean, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 still makes for conspiracy theory-driven headlines.

On another scale, the death earlier this year of Argentinian footballer Emiliano Sala and the pilot of his chartered jet that crashed into the English Channel raises all sorts of questions around unregulated private aircraft.

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Perpetuating fear: Unhelpful media coverage taps into underlying anxieties

For those unfortunate enough to have developed a fear of flying – known as aviophobia – such stories, and their attendant media coverage, hardly help to soothe jangled nerves. 

“Fear can definitely be triggered by the media coverage these incidents receive,” says Lucas van Gerwen, an aviation psychologist and professional pilot, based in the Netherlands.

“People also identify themselves with the victims of air crashes, which can increase their fear tremendously. When you look at MH370, the media exposure is still going on all these years later.”

Van Gerwen heads up the VALK Foundation, a collaborative venture between the University of Leiden, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, aimed at helping people overcome a fear of flying. The root causes of aviophobia, says van Gerwen, are a complex melange of underlying complaints that can manifest themselves in various ways.

“It’s not just a case of people being afraid of being on the aircraft itself,” he explains. “Mostly likely it’s to do with other complaints, such as claustrophobia, a fear of heights, fear of losing control, or perhaps a social phobia. 

“It’s a very broad area. Nobody is born with a fear of flying. It typically starts later in life as a stress-related complaint, which could be caused by a traumatic event or a time in one’s life when they feel less secure.”

People identify themselves with the victims of air crashes, which can increase their fear tremendously

Yoga mats and meditation apps: what airlines and airports can do

So, what can airlines do to assuage such fears? Virgin has run its own fear-of-flying course since 1997, counting the US actress Whoopi Goldberg amongst its patrons (she claims the course, in which she sat down with a psychologist and pilot, helped her to beat a 30-year-long fear of flying). EasyJet and British Airways offer similar such courses. 

Symptoms of aviophobia can also kick in before a passenger has even boarded an aircraft. Not traditionally considered to be havens of calm, airports have a role to play in creating more relaxing environments – especially for passengers with claustrophobia or social anxiety. Dubai International, for instance, has number of spa and wellness facilities, while Dallas Fort Worth and San Francisco International both offer fully-equipped yoga rooms. 

Together with the VALK Foundation, KLM provides aviophobes with the option of simulators as a means of immersion therapy and gradual exposure to their fear. According to van Gerwen, flight simulation is “a standout tool and massively helpful” to patients. Elsewhere, some airlines, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific, have partnered with meditation app Headspace, enabling passengers to practice mindfulness techniques at 30,000 feet.

But, for British travel writer and broadcaster Simon Calder, the aviation industry needn’t necessarily lean on such new-fangled techniques; rather, it could start with doing more to publicise how safe flying is proven to be.

“One way I would like to see airlines tackling the fear of flying is to start talking about their remarkable safety records,” he says. “This is regarded as a taboo in the industry, but I think if more people understood how incredibly safe flying is compared with driving, they would feel more confident as airline passengers.”

The distinction between the respective risks of flying and driving is salient. In 2017, the aforementioned year in which no commercial airline casualties were registered, there were 1,793 road-related deaths reported in the UK alone. However, van Gerwen is doubtful that the promotion of safety records would do much to relieve aviophobes of deep-rooted anxieties. 

“As a therapist, it’s clearly a good thing to have conviction in telling patients aviation is safe, but, in truth, safety records don’t mean much to them,” he says. “Their rationale is: ‘aviation may be safe, but the plane I’m in will crash’. That’s the overriding thought.”

I think if more people understood how safe flying is compared with driving, they would feel more confident

No magic bullet: The importance of tailor-made treatment

Courses of treatment for aviophobia vary from sufferer to sufferer. Recent years have seen increasing store set by VR headsets and augmented reality, although tailor-made cognitive behavioural therapy is the most popular route amongst his own patients, says van Gerwen. Such treatments are only ever commenced after thorough diagnostic assessment.

“There is no single treatment,” says Robert Bor, a psychologist, pilot and psychiatric consultant to the Royal Air Force.  

“It always depends on the nature of the fear. In the case of someone who has post-9/11 fear, that would be helping them to overcome images and catastrophic thoughts. Likewise, a fear of enclosed spaces needs to be tailored specifically to claustrophobia. Without a proper assessment, treatment risks being inappropriate or reinforcing a particular fear.”

Without a proper assessment, treatment risks being inappropriate or reinforcing a particular fear


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