What exactly is 'FEAR OF FLYING'?

How You Frame The Question Will Change The Answer You Get

Today's observation is not about tangibles but about the nature of perception: in this case, the aversion towards being a passenger on aircraft, invariably described as 'fear of flying'. That description or label of the experience simply assumes that 'fear of flying' means the irrational apprehension of death in an airplane. So it is easy to make those averse to flying seem silly, since they will usually ride in a car without trouble. But is the definition of the fearful flyer accurate? I don't think it is. In fact, it's not the fearful flyer that is simplistic; to the contrary, it's the categorization and dismissal of their experience that is simplistic. I write this as someone that has flown from early childhood and has never been a 'fearful flyer' in the normal sense of the term.

Unlike the statisticians, I respect the fearful flyers. And I could very easily become one of them, if any nightmare scenario should happen to me -- as they happen to passengers all the time. Here's my argument.

In the first place, cars are radically different environments from airplanes. The car I'm in is usually mine; it is driven by me or someone I trust -- and over whom I have some authority; it is a vehicle I've maintained and monitored so that if anything goes wrong, I am bound to notice, but at the same time it is not likely to be a life-threatening malfunction. If the weather gets bad, we can stop the car. If the visibility is poor, we can stop the car. If we want, we can even turn around and cancel the trip. Perhaps most importantly, if the car malfunctions or the road is impassable, we can choose to get out. But an airplane, except in the direst circumstances, is expected to plough on. People have destinations they think they have to get to; and airlines can't have a reputation for unreliability. I may feel that I'd rather turn the plane around than circle Boston for a few hours in a snowstorm, but I am only one passenger, and anyway on an airplane my wishes and judgement mean nothing whatsoever. That is the first problem. In a car of one's own, one has control of the vehicle, and one can exercise judgement about what to do with the vehicle. In an airplane, we are all completely dependent on the diligence and the judgement of others. We are also not free to leave when we've had enough, but must stay in place without knowledge or a guaranteed end to our ordeal, as if we were no better than prisoners. This is a position that I, as a free and mentally competent adult, strive to avoid whenever possible. The 'fear of flying' dismissal considers this to be a non-problem, as if normal adults should of course be content to put their lives, for any number of hours, in the power of complete strangers.

But it's not just about our lives as such: fear of flying is not simply fear of dying. It's the fear of being trapped in a very small, submarine-like space, with completely randomly 'self-selected' strangers, for the better part of a day or more -- as my husband was, when the plane he was on landed, only to sit on the tarmac for seven hours, with no food offered and scarcely anything to drink. That is a psychological trial that few people wish to endure even once, never mind risk a second or third time. When shall we get off the plane? Why won't they let us go? Why are we stuck here? I'm hungry. I need the bathroom and I don't want to use the public cubicle again. I'm feeling claustrophobic. I want fresh air. I'm tired of sitting in this tiny seat. I want to go for a walk. I need a drink. I want to call my wife. I won't get any sleep tonight. I'll miss my appointment and I won't get the job. When am I going to get out of here? Who wants to go through that distressing thought loop for seven hours? It's appalling. But according to the 'fear of flying' gurus, that's just so much babyish nonsense.

The other point about an airplane is that, unlike surface transport -- car, boat, train, donkey -- if god forbid there is an accident, your chances of surviving it are pretty poor. On land or water, you might be a burn victim, you might lose some body parts, and you might have months of gruelling physical therapy, but unless you are very unlucky, you will survive. An airplane crash is not so forgiving. If something goes seriously wrong in an airplane, the only way out is down and the likelihood of walking away from that is very small indeed. Just ask John Denver. Ask John F. Kennedy Jr -- and his passengers. And several members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Buddy Holly..... I used to pay attention to the water evacuation drill on airplanes, mainly because I was interested in everything to do with the plane and also because I am an uncured sunny optimist. But let's face it: how many of us really expect that if the plane has to make an ocean landing, we'll get out on a lovely floaty slide? There is a reason that Captain Chesley Sullenberger is an uncommon hero indeed. 

Lastly, an airplane as an isolated yet public place is an ideal target for terrorist attack -- or even just the sabotage of a crazy person. The world knew this long before the 9/11 massacres, and in particular I recall being dreadfully riveted by the December 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814, which not only was traumatic for all on board but also resulted in a young man's murder (his new bride was on the plane: they were returning home from their honeymoon). If that seven-day hijack wasn't enough to churn your stomach, then nothing is (I had to stop watching the news, since my feeling on their behalf wasn't helping them and it wasn't helping me, either). The fact is that no one can assure you that an airplane, when those doors close behind you with no chance of escape, holds only good, reasonable people and not any other kind.