Fear of flying haunts air travellers after MH17 crash

LAWRENCE MONEY
Last updated 12:15, August 22 2014
MASTERING THE FEAR: Eliza Strauss in a flight simulator with flight instructor Tom Dyke at Flight Experience.
Eddie Jim

MASTERING THE FEAR: Eliza Strauss in a flight simulator with flight instructor Tom Dyke at Flight Experience.

For one horrifying second, Eliza Strauss thought she could see a fiery missile speeding up from the darkness towards her plane.

It was only two weeks since MH17 had been shot down and she had been admiring the view from her business-class seat on a flight home to Melbourne from Europe when her life-long terror of flying kicked in.

"It does funny things to you. I just had this weird look out the window and imagined a missile. I had to do some self-talking, put it out of my mind, tell myself 'No, no, if we are hit I won't know about it anyhow'." 

Analysis: Les Posen is a psychologist who has treated aviophobics for 30 years.
Eddie Jim

Analysis: Les Posen is a psychologist who has treated aviophobics for 30 years.

Thanks to an earlier course of treatment for her aviophobia, Strauss had felt fine when she boarded the plane with her 24-year-old step-daughter, but that night in the darkened cabin, while most of other passengers were snoozing, that old demon crept in to test her nerves once more.

The fear of flying, sometimes also called pteromerhanophobia, defies logic.

The risk of being involved in an air crash is infinitesimally small but there are many people for whom such statistics are meaningless. 

Melbourne psychologist Les Posen, who has treated aviophobes for 30 years, says many of his patients can easily quote him all the comforting aviation safety figures.

"They are well-versed in those," he says. "These people are often very bright, used to taking control, managing the destiny of others between 9am and 5pm, but they are confused about the randomness [of aircraft disaster] and MH17 tapped into that. Two minutes before, five minutes afterwards, it could have been another plane and the whole story changes."

For white-knuckled air travellers, the year 2014 has delivered their worst nightmare. In March Malaysian Airlines MH370 – with 239 people aboard – disappeared without trace on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Unsurprisingly, MAS reported a subsequent 7 per cent drop in passengers. 

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Incredibly, it was the same airline four months later whose flight MH17 was shot down by militants over the Ukraine, killing 298.

For flight-frighters, the safety statistics could indicate what they will – there were now 537 passengers whose horrific deaths spoke otherwise.

Strauss, 45, says her problem first appeared when she was was 14 while flying with her grandmother to Canberra.

"I began feeling nervous, uncertain, claustrophobic. My grandmother couldn't understand it because she loved flying – she was married to a World War 2 air force pilot. A year later, when I was in Year 9 at school, I was on a flight with friends when the plane struck bad turbulence. It's funny but I remember trying to reassure the others. Maybe that instigated it. After that, when I travelled on my own and didn't have to be brave, I was a wreck."

From age 18 Strauss flew every year – domestically and internationally – and with each flight her fears grew worse.

She is a Melbourne nurse and midwife who knows the health risks in mixing medication with high-altitude travel but nevertheless she began dosing up on anti-anxiety pills before each flight.

"I'd take too many because I would want to blur it all out. They made me sleep and I would be in this strange state of fogginess. But then I'd wake up and realise we'd only been flying six or seven hours and take another tablet. I'd get nervous, have sweaty palms, always have a headache. Any turbulence frightened me. I just wanted to get to the destination."

Strauss believes her mother's fear of flying sowed the seed. "She had the same symptoms and never hid that from me," says Strauss. "And she's still like that.

"But I have been the opposite with my own 14-year-old daughter because I never want her to think there must be a reason why her mother's fearful."

Les Posen says jumpy airline passengers often try to find their own solutions before seeking help – they read books, consult their GPs, maybe do an airline-based course.

"They may have some success but a year or two later some event occurs and they find themselves the same-old. Some don't fly at all, some will fly but only after self-medicating with alcohol – so they fly only after 2pm because the bar in the airline lounge is not open until the afternoon. 

"Or, for a 9am meeting, they will fly in overnight so they can recover. The idea of flying in at 7am for a meeting at 9 while still overcome with medication – that can be quite intrusive. The cause of their fear is not always clear and it is part of my task to work through that with them to find out what's going on -- and most importantly why this fear continues." 

Posen says some aviophobes construct their lives around their unwillingness to fly. "So holidays become domestic affairs where they take a cruise or a train, or they drive somewhere. But always in the back of the mind is the question: what happens if they get that urgent phone call?" 

You have to return to England because a parent is unwell or your daughter has unexpectedly decided to get married in New York and wants you there.  

"It's almost always international. There's hardly anything domestic. Some people can fly an hour to Sydney and cope with it. They gear themselves up, get it together. But by God,  12 hours to Los Angeles, sit there overnight and do it again for five hours to New York ? Forget about it!"

Superstition plays a part too, says Posen. "Some will check out the registration of the plane," and if, say, it doesn't have a Z or an X they think they'll be safe. Or they might carry a talisman – a religious cross or father's war medals."

Estimates vary on the proportion of the population who are "grounded" like this. Posen says it depends on the "cut off".  "Some say the cut-off is people who won't fly at all but that's not good enough in modern life. It's also people who fly less often than they could, or people who disrupt the holidays of their families, or people who are turning down speaking engagements or job promotions."

Psychologist Shawn Goldberg says that, when quizzed, aviophobes cite many reasons for their anxiety. "The plane will crash and I'll die." "I'll have a panic attack." "I'm terrified I'll make a fool of myself." 

Many aviophobes also have other phobias such as a fear of heights, a fear of lifts or enclosed spaces. "Sometimes they have a social phobia, which is basically a fear of being judged by others," Goldberg says.

Goldberg is contracted by the Flight Experience firm in the city to treat fear of flying. He recently had a call from a man who had got as far as the air bridge from the airport gate to the plane door then had to turn back.

"Some people have bought tickets then been unable to get into the car to drive to the airport," says Goldberg.

"It can be very expensive because, depending on your insurance, you may not get a refund." If the passenger is travelling internationally that can amount to thousands of dollars.

Goldberg says it is not necessary to find a root cause of a patient's aviophobia although, as in Eliza Strauss's case, it can be partly genetic. "You can inherit anxiety. You can be pre-disposed to it and it can be triggered by your environment." 

Remarkably, Goldberg says virtually 100 per cent of aviophobes can be treated successfully ("we don't like the word 'cure' in psychology") in sessions held over four weeks. 

The first step is to help them understand anxiety  and learn techniques to deal with it such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation.  Clients have a session in a flight simulator, sitting in the cockpit with a pilot who details the safety features and sophisticated back-up systems.  

They are given  facts and figures that debunk some of the strongly held myths and irrational beliefs about flying. "Logical explanation opens up their mind," says Goldberg, so for example, they won't think if the aircraft hits turbulence the wing will break off. 

"Other sessions involve applying rational thought to their irrational belief system. This is where cognitive behaviour therapy comes in – to change the way they think so they change the way they feel. They try that out in their everyday life then bring it in to the flight simulator."

Goldberg says that, once treated successfully, aviophobes should be able to cope even if it's several years until they fly again.

Although long-term studies have not yet covered this element,  Goldberg says the skills they learn in this course are applicable to everyday life and can be deployed to deal with other anxieties.

Pilot Michael Wurm is often called in by Flight Experience as part of its course of treatment for aviophobic clients, providing a voice of calm assurance about the facts of air travel. 

"I go through the physical side of how an aircraft works, the fundamentals of what keeps this big beast in the sky," Wurm says.

"The system behind the plane, how it is maintained. I've found the most interest is in the environment in which the aircraft operates, the weather situation,  and we explain the meaning of terms that are bandied about, like wind shear or turbulence. 

Wurm says planes are much more capable than how they are portrayed in film and literature.

"We deal with the mythology from Hollywood, that turbulence will pull the aeroplane apart or that the aircraft can drop several thousand feet in a turbulent event which in fact doesn't happen, aircraft don't drop anywhere, it is just the sensation of dropping.

"We also go over the training that is given to the people involved in engineering, pilots, cabin crew and all the back-of office stuff that is not so glamorous but is incredibly important to the safety of air travel."

Wurm, who has 12,500 flying hours under his belt with a major Australian airline, says the cabin crew sometimes notify him if a passenger is having problems dealing with the flight. 

"After we land, I'll invite them up on the flight deck so they can see what it actually looks like, see that we are real people, we haven't got horns coming out of our heads or hair coming out of our earlobes. My colleagues and I are passionate about flying and we understand that it is something a little unknown, a little unusual, and we're happy to spend a bit of time with these people."

Wurm also confronts jumpy passengers with those much-vaunted statistics. Fact is, you are far more likely to die of a beesting than in a plane crash.

A US study recently concluded that, while the chances of death on a bicycle are about one in 88,000, your odds of death in the air are about one in seven million.

However, as psychologist Les Posen says: "The person who's afraid of flying will say: but what if that 'one' is me?"

 - Sydney Morning Herald

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