Boarding onto a 777 flight - Photo: Alan Light | Flickr CC

Boarding a 777 flight – Photo: Alan Light | Flickr CC

“You’re a travel writer,” people say to me. “But you’re afraid of flying? How does that work?”

It doesn’t. A terrible experience happened to me, where a flight from Lagos, Nigeria, to Accra, Ghana, kept losing altitude for 30 minutes straight. Storm clouds surrounded us, and I couldn’t see anything. The captain didn’t come on the loudspeaker to say there would be turbulence, or sorry for the inconvenience, or that we were totally safe and not crashing to the ground due to a terrible malfunction. People were screaming the entire time. I was about to vomit when finally I saw a village through the thick, white clouds and realized we were safely landing.

I’ve never been the same since. I’ve gotten better, sure — I usually have to fly in order to travel — but I’m not totally cured. Not many people are sympathetic to this fear, however, and it sucks. I find these are good ways to upset someone who has a fear of flying.

The author, Kat, and our David Parker Brown about ready to fly on a Qatar A380 - Photo: David Parker Brown

The author, Kat, and our David Parker Brown about ready to fly on a Qatar A380 – Photo: David Parker Brown

Patronize me about my fear.

Don’t roll your eyes at me and tell me to “get over it” — this is a serious phobia some people have. I’d never tell you to “get over” your fear of dying alone, or accidentally ingesting pesticides because you ate a non-organic apple. Just because it doesn’t freak you out doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate cause of concern for others.

Rattle off the statistics.

I already know them all. I know you’re more likely to die in a car crash than in a plane crash. I know you’re more likely to spontaneously combust within the first 20 minutes of takeoff and the last half-hour before landing. I know air turbulence has never caused a plane to plummet to the ground, and that injuries occur only when people don’t have their seatbelts on during some serious airborne shaking.

It doesn’t change the way I feel about flying, and it never will. It’s not comforting, because those things aren’t the root of my distress.

The colorful economy cabin on the TAM 777.

Even a nice looking cabin can be scary for those who fear flying – Photo: David Parker Brown

Say, “It’s all in your head.”

Mind-over-matter my ass. This ain’t no “Yellow Wallpaper” psychological nonsense. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I would be afraid of flying. Despite the Ghana flight being over six years ago, I vividly remember the sensation of being pushed up, and plunged down, without knowing how far we’d fall. It’s not “all in my head” — it actually happened, and when I get on a plane, it’s hard to forget.

And I’ve done my research about turbulence, so obviously I’m not making it up when I tell you that because of the intense heat in Nevada, Las Vegas is one of the worst airports to fly into. Or that convection currents (hot air being pushed up and cycled back down at a rapid pace), based on incredibly humid weather, are what caused my horrific experience in Ghana. After the plane landed, a man who flies to Accra regularly for work said, “Yeah, this happens all the time. And you don’t get used to it.”

Salmon, bread and wine make sense for a starter, but desert too?

Yea, yea. The food is good, but keep the wine glass full please – Photo: David Parker Brown

Deny me alcohol.

This is for you, flight attendants. Yes, I know that I can get seriously sick from drinking too much alcohol at high altitudes. But I’m not asking for a keg of Heineken — one mini-bottle every three hours usually does the trick. I need something to mix with that free cup of soda, to help me relax, and if you’re lucky, make me so drowsy I actually pass out on the tray table and don’t bother anyone else for the entire flight.

Refuse to hold my hand / talk to me.

I need someone to tell me it’s going to be okay. I need someone to distract me and ask me stupid questions. I need you to be alright with me grabbing on to you at the slightest bump. Why? Because if you don’t, things will get a lot worse for you. I’ll begin to panic. I’ll start screaming like a crazy person. Is that what you want to deal with on a 10-hour flight?

You best be holding my hand like we’re on a first date.

Boarding on the tarmac at Bellingham allows one to get views like this, which you can't get on a jetway.

Landing and getting off the plane always feels good – Photo: David Parker Brown

Tell me I’m not going to die.

When people have a fear of flight, a very tiny percentage of that fear is attributed to the actual idea that we are going to die. Mostly, we don’t like flying for other reasons: We’re claustrophobic. We don’t like germs. Some people are afraid of heights, or falling. No one really thinks we’re all going to die — we’re just really, really uncomfortable on a plane.

I personally hate the feeling when a plane loses altitude and my stomach ends up in my throat — you know, that feeling you get on a roller coaster when you plummet down the track at warp speed? I hate that feeling and I don’t want to experience it anywhere — on a plane, on a trampoline, on a trapeze, and definitely not on a roller coaster.

This story was originally written by Katka Lapelosova for Matador Network. 

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Respect, for being honest.

This sounds exactly like myself. I love flying, but one traumatic event over the Rocky Mtns has kind of ruined it for me. I enjoy it when it is smooth, but hate any turbulence. I wish there were a magic cure.

@james: lots of people and their websites will promise “magic cures” – best to avoid.

Find a private pilot friend, or a local municipal airport with a training school and go up for a brief flight on the basis you can take the controls for a few moments to feel the plane’s stability even in turbulence. It’s one way to recalibrate your brain back to your better days of flying. You might also benefit from some sessions training you in some “emotional regulation” techniques a psychologist could provide. Not training in relaxation, but focus.

Les Posen
Clinical Psychologist
Melbourne Australia

Capt Tom Bunn LCSW

Regardless of what you do or don’t do, it isn’t going to make a significant difference. If you really want to help someone, tell them to read “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. It was recently selected as the “Amazon Editors’ 2014 Favorite” book on psychology.

A funny story around turbulence:

My dads friend who is a frequent flyer and well known astrologer was on an SQ flight DEL-SIN. They hit a terrible patch of turbulence and there was chaos in the cabin. So this guy in a very confident voice and calm face assures all his fellow distraught pax that nothig will happen and he knows this because he is an astrologer and according to him its not yet “time to go”.

As with most turbulences, flight returned to normalcy and landed safely in SIN amid cheers for the suddenly famous astrologer. He made quiet a few new rich clients that night.

Learning: Turbulence is not always bad!!!

me too sir.. Im from Indonesia,,, and i hate turbulance too.. . And 1 most important thing, in any Indonesian airline ,mostly domestic cheap trip,evereything inside cabin shaking all the time, not just take off or landing,,, it sounds like ngik..ngik…ngik… same just like a bus,,,
how can i cure this phobia sir ?? please help me..

I’m sorry. What a crock. What an absolute crock.

If your fear of flying is bad that you need to get intoxicated on the flight, or your start grabbing other passengers and screaming…stay the hell off of airplanes. The safety hazard is YOU, not the turbulence. Take the train, drive, walk, or don’t go. Get a different job.

Flying is bad enough without having to deal with a drunk grabbing me because they are afraid the plane went bump. Do the rest of us passengers a favor. Get some help to deal with your phobia, or don’t get on a damned airplane.

John, I have enjoyed most of your comments and of course thank you for reading. Heck, I remember you are the one that pointed out doing 747s vs 747’s (I think that it has mostly been done right ever since).

But, I have to say that you are wrong here.

I like to fly. I want others to like to fly. Or at least not hate it. So when I am sitting next to someone, who has some issues, I want to help.

Heck, last time I was on a WN flight (and had plenty of seats left), I sat next to a young mother and her baby on purpose. She looked ashamed, like she shouldn’t be there. She (and her child) had just as much right to be there as me. (if I remember right, you aren’t a fan of kids on planes either?!). But just sitting, saying hi, asking how old her kid was, made her feel so much better.

Did the baby cry? Yes. Was Katka (the story’s author) talking my ear off about random stuff because she was nervous while I was trying to get photos of the QR A380 on our social media? Very much so :). Did she get hysterical and try to open the door mid-flight? Not even close.

Just take a few moments and make other passengers, who might have a few challenges, feel more welcomed.

As AvGeeks, I think we need to promote the beauty of flight, even in crappy situations. Flying has become more and more like public transportation and people have a right to fly. Doesn’t mean every flight is enjoyable, but that is okay. We all still seem to make it to our destination.

My mom has a big fear of flying. But she took me on flights when I was young. If she didn’t overcome her fear, or if she felt pressured not to bring a kid on board — AirlineReporter might not exist.

David, AirlineReporter

David, I always appreciate your insight, and I probably sounded more harsh than I intended. Of course, if you would consider the circumstances in which I was writing, it might be forgivable…

I was on a flight on American from DFW to Boston. Despite the public perception that top tier frequent fliers always get upgrades or at least the more legroom economy plus sections, that is often not the case, and I was squashed into a window seat in coach with everyone else, on a packed 4 hour flight.

I could live with that…but the man next to me had apparently forgotten to take a bath this month. Or last month. And then he decided the best thing to handle that was to pour an entire bottle of cologne over himself. Sour Hai Karate and BO mixed together, six inches from my face…

But it got better. Once we were aloft, he started falling asleep. His head would droop and droop…then he would wake up with a start and jump. Over and over. That was nice, until he shifted, and when his head fell over, it started hitting my shoulder. Again and again. After about five times of this guy’s greasy hair hitting my shoulder, I tapped on him and told him what he was doing. So he shifted, and then his head started flopping into the tray table. That went on for hours.


So if I was a little harsh, I apologize. I was ready to throw myself out of the plane at 30,000 feet.

I’m not spoiled. I understand that flying can be a pain. Planes are cramped and uncomfortable and can be unpleasant. That said, I get frustrated when people make the experience worse, and the other passengers are just supposed to “understand”.

I have children myself and I did travel with them when they were little, so I know what it’s like to deal with tired unhappy children. When we traveled, I took great pains to schedule the trip to minimize the chance of them acting up on the plane, in close spaces. We took all sorts of items to distract them, feed them, whatever. We chose times that would be likely to have them sleep…or to have them at their most rested. We avoided long flights with short connections to long flights.

I ask this…if you were eating in a restaurant, and the people next to you had a screaming toddler, would that offend you? Or in a movie theater? Yet on a plane you are supposed to just “understand” that it happens. It frustrates me. And too often, the parents do almost nothing to help. The child jumps around and kicks the seats or grabs things or screams, and the parent is too busy watching their electronic gadget or chatting up some other passenger to deal with it. I see this all the time, David. I have great compassion for people who have a baby that is upset, but less so for people who ignore the problem, which I see all the time.

With regard to the lady with the fear of flying, per her article she likes to drink to deal with her fear. To the point that she passes out. Or she will grab other passengers, or panic and start screaming.

I have compassion for passengers with challenges. I always try to help distract an unhappy toddler. I’ve been known to play peek-a-boo, make faces, funny voices, or give them a colorful object out of my bag to help get them settled. I deal with fearful passengers as well, talking to them about other things, etc. But it’s one thing to be nervous about flying, quite another to tell people “I’ll begin to scream…I’ll begin to panic”. Her own words.

I really don’t feel compassion for someone who is so afraid to fly that she is telling you before you leave that she may begin to scream or panic. I take that back…I do have compassion for her, because her fears are very real to her. But that compassion is limited if she doesn’t do anything about that phobia, and gets on a plane anyway and expects flight attendants and other passengers to just deal with her. Get some help…or stay off airplanes if your phobia is that bad. Please.

Hi Katka, I completely understand what you mean.
I was ok with flying until our flight from London to Newark 8 years ago. We were landing in stormy weather and we were told by the pilot that we will be landing in 20 minutes when suddenly our plane was hit by lightening. There was huge bang, all the lights went off, we could smell smoke… 1,5 hour later we were still flying without any update. I understand that pilots obviously had their hands full and we managed to land 2 hours after our scheduled landing time. The pilots explained that due to the storm we could not land but since this flight I am quite scared when we hit any bigger turbulence. Apparently this was the longest flight the pilots experienced between London and Newark.
My problem is, that I love to travel so I always try to fly with somebody who can put my mind to rest 🙂

Toni Durr

I am very late to this party, but have to say that I was afraid to fly for years in spite of being married to two different pilots and working for two major airlines. (As a Crew Scheduler) I remember the days of grabbing onto fellow pax and demanding they tell me their life stories. (Awkward when they asked me what I did for a living!) I finally got over it, and now all my relatives who made fun of me are the ones who have become afraid to fly. Go figure.

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