The couple sat at a steakhouse, a good bottle of merlot between them. Outside the big bay windows, boats were moored to a dock, rocking gently on Puget Sound’s tinfoil blue. Mike Sanders gazed at his wife across the table and thought about how he wanted to do something special for next year’s 15th anniversary. Lifting a glass of wine, he found himself unexpectedly proposing a trip to Hawaii. His wife’s eyes lit up.
“There’s times when you say something and you’ll do anything to stuff those words back in your mouth,” Sanders recalls ruefully.
Sanders was desperately afraid of flying. Not only of flying, but of airports, airport security, elevators and bridges—anything that forced upon him the sense of being stuck in a tight space. He often had anxiety attacks just picking people up from the airport, and the sound of the flight attendants closing plane doors triggered panic. He couldn’t imagine how he was going to sit inside an airplane for five hours over open ocean, with no way of getting out or getting off until the craft landed. But now he’d planted the idea of Honolulu in her head, and he knew he had to try.
Clinical aviophobia affects about 6.5% of the US population, and about 15% of us have at least some anxiety about flying, according to a 2015 survey by Chapman University. But our fears are largely misplaced. In 2013, over 32,700 Americans died in highway fatalities. Only 443 Americans that year died in all sectors of aviation, including skydiving, air shows, and those little charters that haul prospectors to remote rivers in Alaska, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Yet these statistics are of little comfort to nervous fliers. They tend to pay more attention to the highly-publicized crashes that happen every so often: the Germanwings flight flown into a mountain in the French Alps by a suicidal pilot in 2015; the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014; the EgyptAir jet that crashed into the Mediterranean in 2016. Those high-profile disasters are extremely rare. But they can dominate the 24-hour news cycle, sending media consumers into loops of anxiety.
Luckily, there are people who devote their careers and volunteer their weekends to educate the anxious and help them recapture some of the joy of flying–or at least endure the bumps with equanimity. Breaking the cycle of fear requires a combination of coaxing, practice, and sitting through a good old-fashioned science class.
Sanders hadn’t always been afraid of flying. His father was an amateur pilot, and as an adult, he often traveled for work. But when he was in his 30s, his mother became ill, and he began flying to see her between legs of business trips. “I never connected the dots. I wasn’t a big drinker, but I’d have a couple glasses of wine on the plane to dull the anxiety,” he recalls. Then he started adding prescription pills. Then he stopped flying altogether.
“Somebody who develops an anxiety disorder around flying reacts to it in a kind of catastrophic way,” says Dr. Jason Guy Richards, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders. “They are distracting themselves rather than processing it out. If you find ways to reify its danger, that’s what causes it to grow.” Dr. Richards adds that “escape and avoidance behaviors”—such as refusing to even drive near the airport, much less fly—are common. But confronting the fear is actually the best way to manage it.
In Dr. Richards’ office, patients do disaster scripting. “They construct these really elaborate first-person intense stories about their worst fears of flying, then read them over and over until they cease to be anxious about the words and images,” says Dr. Richards.
It may sound cruel to force already-skittish fliers to contemplate engine failure and fiery crashes. But desensitizing patients to their fears can actually help them to stop avoidance behaviors. Sometimes, the patient and psychologist sit inside a parked, locked car—mimicking the claustrophobia of a plane—and read the scripts together. “We get very good results from that,” he says.
With Hawaii looming, Sanders also decided to face his fears. He signed up for a course at SeaTac’s Fear of Flying clinic, where a volunteer team of pilots, psychologists, flight attendants, and clinic graduates would help him control his phobia.
At the clinic, clients learn from experts like Captain Robin Boone, who flew for Northwest Airlines for 35 years. Boone is both utterly convinced of the safety of planes and passionate about correcting misinformation. “So many people are just wracked with fear about flying, and it’s chiefly due to myths, falsities, lack of knowledge,” says Captain Boone. “I’ve never met a fearful pilot. Why aren’t pilots afraid? They know how flying works!”
Over two full weekends, clinic clients pick up the skills they need to take to the skies. Armed with binders full of diagrams and explanations, they tour air traffic control towers and maintenance facilities to see the complex ground systems that support flight.
Some of the most common anxiety triggers for fearful fliers are crowds, enclosed spaces, and anticipation of motion sickness. So a psychologist teaches visualization, breathing, and body relaxation techniques to cope with those situations. A meteorologist explains why lightning strikes won’t harm an airplane. Pilots demonstrate the redundancies built into mechanical systems. Sanders particularly responded to understanding the science behind flying: “You’re arming yourself with knowledge,” he says. “With a little bit of knowledge, all of a sudden you can fight the anxiety.”
The clinic’s graduation is a short flight together, often from Seattle to Spokane, Washington. For many, this is trial by fire. Captain Boone recalls one man who “had pulled the window shade all the way down, eyes closed, gripping his hands … I said, ‘Come on let’s raise it just a little bit.’ He raised it about an inch and saw a little daylight. Then a little more. Finally he said, ‘Look at that! There’s cars out there! There’s people!‘ He had a smile on his face as big as a Cheshire Cat.”
Airplane manufacturers are also doing their part to help anxious fliers cope. Turbulence, for example, is one of the big triggers in aviophobia. As Captain Boone puts it: “Turbulence can’t hurt you, period.” But for many of us, jolts of rough air trigger some innate urge to grip the seat cushions and pray—or at the very least, complain that the beverage cart can’t come around.
As manufacturer of many of the world’s commercial airplanes, Boeing has studied passenger response to turbulence. Boeing’s 787 “Dreamliner” planes incorporate a “smooth ride technology” that helps the plane anticipate high-amplitude pops. By monitoring changes in airflow and sending that information to the flight controls, the plane can adjust accordingly before the turbulence hits. “It’s kind of like putting the airplane on Prozac,” says Blake Emery, director of differentiation strategy for Boeing.
Mechanics aside, the size of windows, lighting in the cabin and size and location of overhead bins all create a holistic feeling that can affect how anxious passengers get on a flight. Boeing decided to make cabin windows 65% bigger after research showed that people who sit by the windows often feel calmer. Tucking overhead bins away from the seats creates a more spacious feeling for passengers, relieving claustrophobia. Colorful interior lighting which modulates throughout the flight is intended to alleviate the hard shock of entering a new time zone. Boeing even spent time redesigning the bin latches to blend into the new aesthetic.
Obviously, there’s a commercial advantage to such a philosophy—happier passengers fly more frequently. So Boeing’s design and engineering aims to reconnect people to the marvel of flight. “It’s already in their brains. We want our designs to re-trigger that,” says Emery. “Just about every feature that we have, if it opens up the sky to you, that’s what we’re going for.”
There is one group of people for whom the delight and discovery of flying seems never to fade: pilots. “I saw the Northern Lights from 40,000 feet, flying west during one of the meteor showers in the fall,” says Captain Boone. He adds that in 21,000 hours in the air, he has never once been bored in the cockpit. “From coast to coast, for four hours, we were just regaled by this display.”
In Skyfaring, his poetic memoir of life as a pilot, Mark Vanhoenacker muses that flying, at its best, reconnects us to a sense of wonder: “Airplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forests, suburbs, schools, and rivers. The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationships between them on land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.”
Perhaps that sense of wonder is a stretch for most passengers. The simple ability to fly without fear is a good enough goal. Sanders—now a volunteer for the Fear of Flying clinic—did go to Hawaii with his wife for their anniversary, and they have returned every year since.
That said, he’s still not thrilled by flying. “About partway through the first leg to Honolulu, I started to become anxious,” says Sanders. “I told myself hey, you don’t have to be euphoric.” Nowadays, he just tries to watch a movie and eat some peanuts “in reasonable comfort.”
By now Sanders has settled into a routine. He crosses the sliver of open air between the jetway and the plane and feels, for a brief moment, the blast of wet Seattle cool; enters the tight, recycled tautness of the machine’s interior atmosphere; smiles, perhaps slightly nervously, at the flight attendants. And then he does one more thing: he always shakes hands with the pilot. Something about looking the pilot in the eyes, seeing his uniform and feeling a firm grip, comforts him.
And then he straps in and rises, fast and furious, through the Seattle drizzle, bumps through the thick coating of clouds and bursts into unexpected sunlight. The sky is endless and pearl-blue, the clouds ripped open by the tips of mountains. Then the plane banks, and people shift their gazes from the sparkle of sunlight to the dull glow of screens and magazines. They turn toward open ocean.