British Airways’ Flying with Confidence course has been helping people conquer their fear of flying for over twenty-five years. We sent Eleanor Aldridge to put it to the test.
Flying is one of the safest ways to travel. Last year, more people died in the UK sticking knives into toasters than in commercial aviation accidents around the globe. The odds of being killed on a commercial flight in the USA, for instance, are somewhere around one in 45 million. Yet according to British Airways, one in four of us is nervous about getting onto a plane, while one in ten has a full-on phobia.
I’ve been scared of flying for as long as I can remember. Yes, I’m a travel writer who hates getting on a plane – and I’m not the only one. Despite being a frequent flier, over the years I’ve got worse rather than better, my anxiety level and diazepam dose creeping up a notch each time.
As far as I’m concerned, a sharp turn will lead to the plane going belly-up, turbulence is going to snap off a wing and that guy hovering by the loos is about to open the door at 30,000ft. When it comes to take-off and landing, a whirr from the engine indicates certain failure, that sinking sensation definitely means we’re about to plummet and I’m pretty sure the pilot has forgotten to put down the landing wheels.
Reassuringly named Captain Steve Allright has been helping “catastrophisers” like me for the past twenty years, spearheading British Airways’ Flying with Confidence course. The one-day programme is split into three parts: a technical presentation by Steve and fellow pilot Andy Shaw, an in-depth psychological session with Dr Keith Stoll and a 45-minute flight to conclude the day. Their success rate is astounding: of over 45,000 participants, 98% have successfully overcome their fears. “The day is really about empowerment”, Steve tells me over lunch, when course-goers are free to quiz pilots and cabin crew.
Is flying safe?
We soon learn that turbulence is the biggest myth: it’s never dangerous. Pilots class it in three levels of severity: light (like a bumpy road), moderate (enough to unsettle your drink) and severe (drops of up to 100ft). You might think you’ve experienced severe turbulence, but a professional pilot might encounter just five minutes in their whole career. The wings are one solid construct running through the fuselage; they can flex to a huge degree and certainly won’t drop off.
A pilot is also unlikely to experience engine failure more than once in their working life, and even if they do there is always one, if not three, more engines that the plane can fly on safely. In the near-improbable event that all engines fail, a commercial aircraft can glide one mile for every thousand foot of altitude.
It turns out that the sinking sensation I hate so much on take-off is a result of changes in the rate of acceleration and steepness of climb (a noise abatement procedure); the inner ear misinterprets this as a change in altitude. And, thankfully, due to air pressure it’s impossible to open the aircraft door in mid-flight.
With unfailing humour and patience, Steve and Andy go on to explain that pilots are drilled in simulator tests every six months. What’s more, each time they get in the cockpit they plan for an aborted take-off or problem on the runway. Aborted landings are nothing to be scared of either, as air traffic controllers strictly regulate the space between planes. There is one “go-around” a day at Heathrow.
Why are we scared?
Despite all this, many of us are scared of flying. Thirty thousand years of evolution has prepared humans for a life on terra firma, and roaring through the sky in a metal tube is about as unnatural as it gets. Unfamiliarity with the sensations, concerns about a lack of control and claustrophobia can all lead to panic in the air.
Twenty percent of my group are frequent fliers mostly upset by turbulence, around ten percent have never flown and the rest have managed a handful of flights. Where the course excels is in helping participants identify and understand their fear; the first step to overcoming it.
The root of fear lies in our propensity for anxiety, Dr Keith Stoll explains, “and we are not all equally anxious”. Some of us have a “slightly oversensitive car alarm”, often a genetic trait but something that can also be set off by a bad flight, recreational drug use and, surprisingly, having a child (a factor for around ten percent of my group).
How can you overcome your fear?
The primary coping mechanism, Keith counsels, is learning to control your breathing. Surprisingly the trick is to disobey your natural instinct and start by breathing out. On the inhale, he instructs us to clench our bums, overriding nervous signals in the spine. (There’s nothing like the sight of a hundred nervous fliers reciting “breathe and squeeze” to inject a little humour into the day.) Next, the focus should be on distraction: watching a movie, reciting times-tables or focusing on arrival to break the “doom loop”.
When the time comes to show the world’s strangest boarding card (LHR–LHR) to security, 97 out of 100 participants make it onto the plane. There are surprisingly few tears and several rounds of applause as we loop down to the Isle of Wight and back across central London, the Shard, Gherkin and Walkie Talkie glittering below in the early-evening sun. Steve narrates the whole flight minute-by-minute: “5,000ft now and all normal; look out for the wing flaps; now a small turn to the left; still all normal….”
It’s an impressive conclusion to the course. A lady in her seventies has taken her first flight, others have overcome a fear of heights and some have beaten years of severe claustrophobia. As for me, it’s the calmest I’ve been in years without a pack of little yellow pills. I’ve still got a way to go, but the day has given me the knowledge and motivation I needed. The advice that resonates the most is from Dr Keith Stoll: when it comes to a fear of flying, “don’t wait until the kitten becomes a lion”.
British Airways run Flying with Confidence courses from Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh, Dubai and New York throughout the year, with a separate programme for teenagers running concurrently. The basics of the course are also covered in an accompanying book.