x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

How to fly past panic

Clare Dight goes to Dubai to take a course to tackle her fear of flying.

While statistics insist that a fear of flying is irrational, it is nevertheless a crippling phobia for many. A course in Dubai claims to offer flying coping tools so that they can keep their phobia in check. Corbis
While statistics insist that a fear of flying is irrational, it is nevertheless a crippling phobia for many. A course in Dubai claims to offer flying coping tools so that they can keep their phobia in check. Corbis

My husband thinks I’m mad. “You’re happy to drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai for a fear of flying course, but you’re worried about going on an airplane?” 

He’s right, of course. Statistically I’m far more likely to be involved in a road accident than in a plane crash, but common-sense analysis rather misses the point: phobias are irrational by nature.

The knowledge that I’m almost three times more likely to be eaten by a shark than plunge helpless from the skies is also of scant comfort. The fact is I have a physiological response to air travel: even the smell of an airplane makes my stomach flip and mid-air requests to ‘please, fasten your seat belt’ result in an immediate adrenalin spike and racing heartbeat. 

Psychologists define a phobia as an irrational, persistent fear of a specific object or situation that engenders avoidance behaviour. It’s a learnt response and can be triggered in a number of ways: by excessive stress; by being indoctrinated to fear something; by observation, if you witness someone else reacting fearfully; by direct experience of a trauma or a false alarm.

I’ve developed an ad hoc array of coping mechanisms over the years. The moment that air turbulence begins, I grab the flimsy complimentary headset, tune into choral music and set the volume to eleven. If I feel I cannot move, I start to sing “Oh happy day” over and over again in my head. I only know the chorus but it’s enough to keep the airplane in the sky.

Such lunacy has allowed me to mentally pull up the drawbridge to try to forget where I am, but now that I have two small children, an even greater fear — that they might inherit my phobia — has brought me to enrol on British Airways’ one-day Flying with Confidence course led by pilot Captain Steve Allright. 

When I arrive for the course in the plushly carpeted room at the Capital Club, DIFC, what’s immediately clear is that a fear of flying has a broad demographic. Among the attentive audience of some 20 people who would rather do anything than print another boarding card, there are other expat mums, a local dentist, an 18 year-old girl whose phobia has her stranded in Dubai and business types who have flown in to attend — “Yes I know, it’s ironic” one tells me. 

I am greeted by an atmosphere that’s an odd mix of relief at finding other “normal” people and a palpable tension at what might follow. For some even looking at a photograph of an airplane is stressful — one young woman says she cannot sleep or eat for weeks before a flight.

With an epaulette on each shoulder and greying hair, the well-named Captain Allright seeks to reassure as he starts scrolling through the 83-slide presentation, which could be entitled a dummies guide to aviation, that will take us to lunch. The afternoon session is led by a British Airways’ counsellor, Donna Allright, who promises to give participants a range of psychological tools to help manage their fear. 

“We are the most regulated profession on the planet,” Captain Allright says to introduce the first section on pilot training, flight theory and the mechanics of how an aircraft is controlled. His explanations are peppered with well-turned phrases: “We are always prepared for the worst-case scenario”; “Unless you hear otherwise, assume everything is normal”; “Trust the professionals”.  

Turbulence is the most “popular” section of his presentation and as Captain Allright explains the physics of turbulence, repeating the phrase “turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous” at regular, calming intervals, he gives an entertaining insight into life in the cockpit. When someone asks why planes don’t always fly higher or lower to minimise turbulence, Captain Allright explains that it’s sometimes not possible because of other air traffic nor worthwhile. Pilots are in constant communication on open channels and Americans in particular, he says, love giving a constant commentary on flying conditions: One will ask: “How’s your ride?” Another: “How’s the chop at 35? OK, I’ll try 37 ...”

“I don’t want you to walk out and think next time: I hope it’s a smooth flight,” he concludes. “Turbulence is part of flying; it’s nature. It’s like being on a train.”

It’s all common-sense stuff and what I take away from Captain Allright’s presentation is not only Bernoulli’s theorem of lift, for example, or how fuel requirements and take-off weights are calculated, the effectiveness of on-board fire extinguishers, the capacity for an aircraft’s wings to flex and the traffic collision avoidance system but also his irrepressible enthusiasm for flying Boeing 747s. Quite expectedly, a light bulb goes on and I find it difficult to be afraid of something that can bring someone else such joy.  

From the pattern of questions, though, it’s clear that others are still in the dark. “You mention fire and explosion,” one young woman says. “Can you make me feel better about that?” 

Another participant, a businessman from Saudi Arabia, introduces each one of his questions with the example of a plane crash. A veritable encyclopaedia of catastrophe, he knows all the relevant flight numbers and references for both commercial and military air accidents. “What happened when ...?” he asks time and again to others’ increasing dismay.  

The questions keep coming and few are measured but Captain Allright patiently gives people a forum to voice their fears; this process is a vital part of the catharsis of group therapy. However, Donna steps in at one point in a bid to end what she calls “catastrophising”. “We have the power to change how our minds work,” she adds firmly. 

But the power of positive thinking is not a message that everyone is ready to receive: “If we were meant to fly, god would have given us wings,” one woman says, clutching at clichés. “It’s natural for all of us to think about catastrophe.” 

“No, not everyone, one in four people,” Allright says, citing the results of a recent British Airways/YouGov survey that found one in four people admit to a fear of flying. 

Alan Cross is both bemused and comforted to find others with a more febrile state of mind. A UK national based in Abu Dhabi, he explains why he signed up for the course: “I’ll get on a plane but the more I fly, the more nervous I get. It’s like I’m waiting for the turbulence to happen.”  

Cross’s fear of flying influences his behaviour and is a source of some frustration. “I’m getting to a stage that I would rather pay for people to come here to visit me than fly home ... I’d like to go to Brazil for the World Cup but I won’t because it’s too far.”

During lunch, everyone chats easily, having bonded through confession and shared experience. Meeting like-minded people is one of the most powerful ways in which the course works, Donna Allright later tells me. The process of listening to people’s fears without judgement, known in therapy as unconditional positive regard is also at work. “It’s a magic combination of empathy, sympathy and understanding,” she explains.

The afternoon session finds a more relaxed group breathing in and out to the count of four or a recitation of Burj Khalifa depending on your want. Donna Allright encourages everyone to consider their nascent physical response to their phobia, be it a persistent cough or other nervous tic, clammy skin, raised heartbeat or increased sensory awareness, and to remember to breathe deeply and slowly to prevent “fight or flight” hormones and the start of panic kicking in.

Clenching a muscle group, the buttocks are the easiest, is another effective way to derail a psychological meltdown, Donna Allright says. And so we practise breathing and clenching, breathing and clenching. Positive visualisation techniques in which a person closes their eyes and imagines a happy place in full sensory 3D are also discussed as a way to prevent the onset of panic. These will require more rehearsal at home.

Keeping the brain occupied on a timetable of tasks is a more relaxing way to travel than gripping the arm rests and staring straight ahead, Donna Allright says drawing a grid on a white board to represent an eight-hour flight and filling it with suggested activities: food and drinks; a film; reading a book; watching the moving map; even, writing your Christmas cards in July.

As the course draws to an end, people crowd around Captain Allright and Donna to ask yet more questions and to collect a book that accompanies the course and CD of visualisation techniques designed to help everyone work on what they’ve learnt. Flying with Confidence does not pretend to be an immediate or quick fix but the second step in managing and neutralising this debilitating fear — the first is signing up at a cost of Dh1,995. The ultimate test will come on take off and even earlier — for some, just clicking “book” on an airline’s website will be a considerable achievement.

A young Finnish woman, Inga Stevens, asks to have her photograph taken with the pilot and I wonder whether she will look at it during turbulence, take off and landings. I ask her what she thought of the course. “I’m a nervous flyer,” she tells me. “Not enough to keep me from travelling but I’m sick of feeling anxious about it.”

Now smiling, Stevens says she has benefited from understanding the mechanics of flying and from one analogy, in particular: the jelly theorem. Donna Allright, who specialises in counselling children and teenagers with flying phobias, recalled one child telling her that a jet stream is rather like jelly; a plane sitting on the fast flowing air will wobble but it won’t drop. This knowledge has empowered Stevens who loathed turbulence: “I’m getting excited about my next trip,” she says. “I really, really hope that I will get on a plane and have a good experience with no anxiety.”


The next British Airways’ Flying with Confidence course will take place in Dubai on October 20. To book, visit www.flyingwithconfidence.com.