What causes fear of flying?

Why do people become fearful of travelling by air?

Fear of flying is a learned fear – many people who are nervous flyers or are phobic of flying were once comfortable and confident air travellers.

What happened to ‘condition’ them to be fearful – to move them from the mild end of the spectrum towards the uncomfortable end?

1. Bad experiences when flying

They may have had an upsetting or terrifying experience in the air. Perhaps they had a flight that encountered bad weather or where there was prolonged turbulence. Or they may have been on a plane which developed mechanical problems causing an aborted take-off or an emergency landing. Or their fear may develop as a result of a series of small-in-themselves moments.

2. ‘Stress contamination’

The person’s already-high stress levels are further raised by being on a plane and this results in an anxiety episode. They then fear getting on a plane again in case they have another anxiety attack.

Had they been feeling calm when they got on the plane the journey, even with the occasional anxious moment, would not have affected them. However severe stress, or prolonged moderate stress, ‘sensitises’ us and lowers our coping ability. Events, which we would normally take in our stride, now become overwhelming.

This is one of the common ways in which people, especially pressured business travellers, develop fear of flying.

3. News coverage of an air disaster

It is not surprising that people develop a fear of flying as a result of the extensive and intensive coverage that the media gives to air crashes.

Air crashes are usually shocking events with dozens or hundreds of deaths. And they are all the more shocking for the photographs of the lined-up bodies, the smoking debris, the photos or television shots of masses of grieving relatives at the destination airport.

And many people do have a morbid fascination with air disasters. How else can you explain the book that I recently saw on sale (at two airports) featuring transcripts from the ‘black box’ flight recorders of doomed planes!!

To get air disasters into perspective, how many people would venture to drive if we had the same detailed, vivid, and intense coverage of the daily carnage that occurs on our roads?

Does this matter?

Yes and no. On the ‘yes’ side it’s interesting and can be reassuring to know that there are reasons why we develop a fear of flying. It’s also reassuring to know that it can happen to anyone and that there’s nothing organically wrong with one’s brain or brain functioning.

On the ‘no’ side this is irrelevant in terms of getting rid of the fear. What is relevant is to discover what you can do to gain or regain the confidence to fly with ease and comfort.

And this requires practical how-to methods rather than analysis of the causes.


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