Homepage Search Homepage

Why Does Fear of Flying Take More Effort to Overcome?

Reid Wilson, Ph.D.

Director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center and is an international expert in the treatment of anxiety disorders, with books translated into nine languages.

Even though one out of every six adult Americans is afraid of flying, a very small percentage seek out help for their fears. For those who do confront their worries and symptoms, the task of getting more comfortable often takes significant encouragement and an extra dose of effort. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. You may be confronting several fears at once.

When a person is phobic of elevators, she typically has only one fear, whether it is closed-in spaces, crowds or heights. This simple phobia means that the task of getting better is not so complicated. Few people have only one fear regarding flying. There are two broad areas of concern. Some people have trouble believing that commercial air travel is safe. And, understandably, people dislike the anxious symptoms they feel when they fly. Within those two are over two dozen fears. It's no wonder that many people don't even try to overcome so many obstacles to their comfortable flying.

2. Your perception of risk may work against you.

Before we engage in a new or difficult activity, our minds automatically begin to assess the risk factors involved. Three criteria are common as we consider whether to move forward with action:

  • Am I in control of the risk?
  • Is it a big risk or many little ones?
  • Is it familiar or unfamiliar?

Commercial flight doesn't score very well on this psychological assessment of risk. Let's contrast flying with traveling by automobile.

First is, am I in control? People perceive that they have very little control of an airplane. They can't get off the plane and they aren't permitted in the cockpit. It seems much safer in a car because we can typically drive whenever we want and pull over whenever we feel like it. (By the way, that's why some people have trouble driving over bridges or in the left hand turn lane at a stoplight -- they feel trapped by not being able to quickly pull off the road.)

The second question is, will this be a big risk? In an automobile accident only a few people are injured or killed at the most. The mind perceives this as a small risk compared to the possibility of over 100 people being killed in one airline accident. In addition, being on the ground while traveling seems less risky than traveling 35,000 feet in the air.

Third, is this risk familiar? People think they have a general sense of how cars work. They know there is this engine that has pistons that produce energy that turn the wheels. We have been exposed to cars so frequently over so many years that we travel by car with little sense of risk. Flying, on the other hand, is an inherently unnatural event for humans and can seem quite mysterious. How do they put some many tons of plane, people and cargo into the air? How do they prevent collisions? What if we run out of fuel, get a flat tire, run into a storm? The complexity of commercial flight leads us to feel insecure, since we are naturally more afraid of the unknown than the known.

None of these perceptions is reflective of reality! As you will read in the next few pages, flying is, indisputably, the safest form of modern transportation. To reduce your anxieties about commercial flight, you must challenge your perceptions of reality far more than you need to address the actual risks of flying. As you realize this, you will be well on your way to comfortable flight.

3. The media present a lopsided view of airline accidents.

The media coverage of an airline accident can contribute to this problem, too. We see or read about the same airline accident repeatedly on the radio and TV and in newspaper articles. If there has been a plane crash recently, it might be shown on the evening news ten or fifteen times over the next three or four weeks. It could come across our breakfast tables every morning for days through the newspaper headlines. Seeing that traumatic event so many times, we have ample opportunity to imagine ourselves on that plane.

Dr. Arnold Barnett, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, compared the number of front-page stories in The New York Times that addressed six major sources of death: AIDS, automobiles, cancer, homicide, suicide, and commercial jets. Over a period of a year, stories about airline accidents far outnumbered stories about any of the other five sources of death. In fact, when considering coverage on a per-death basis, the number of airline stories was sixty times the number of stories on AIDS, and over eight thousand times the number of stories about cancer, the nation's number two killer.

Airline accidents are certainly dramatic and newsworthy, and the media serves an important function of keeping the public eye on the industry's safety concerns. However, this kind of frequent reporting skews our sense of relative danger. We tend to associate greater exposure to a problem with our sense of how serious the problem is. It is not so much the number of people killed by a particular source that can produce our vicarious trauma. If that were true, few of us would feel safe enough to travel by car. But the greater the number of times we draw our attention to the graphic image of those deaths, and the greater the number of times we imagine ourselves involved in that event, then the stronger our chances of becoming uncomfortable.

4. It is harder to gradually face your fears of flying.

We know from over twenty-five years of behavioral research that gradual exposure to fearful situations is a highly successful treatment. You can design a program for yourself that takes you through stages of exposure to components of flying: studying about the industry, visiting airports, talking with pilots, boarding stationary planes, practicing visualizations of comfortable flight. But the step between these practices and boarding a regular commercial flight is a large one. For those who have become phobic of flying and no longer travel by plane, this step requires significant courage.

5. Repetition of practice is crucial, but it's costly.

We also know that you continue to increase your comfort by continuing to practice facing your fears. If too much time passes between practices, the mind has a tendency to wander back to the fearful experiences and forget the successes. I recommend that my clients take at least one flight every three months to practice their skills during their first year after treatment. But with ticket prices for even short trips costing close to $200, this can be so expensive that people fail to reinforce their gains through practice.