December 14, 2016

Air travel has become a routine part of modern life and is one of the safest modes of transportation. However, fear of flying is a growing phenomenon with which many people have to learn to cope regardless, due to job requirements or family needs. The growing number of people exhibiting fear of flying has been attributed to the increasing number of people flying and the increasing perception of security and health concerns associated with air travel.

The cause of fear of flying tends to be multifactorial and is influenced by social, psychological, and physiological factors that are unique to each individual. Though treatments for fear of flying are effective, fear manifests differently from person to person, which can challenge diagnosis and treatment.

Fear of Flying Is Irrational

Fear associated with flying on commercial airlines is considered an irrational fear, because this fear is not proportional to the dangers posed by air travel. Individuals are statistically more likely to die from a motor vehicle accident or shark attack than a plane crash. In fact, fewer than three plane accidents occur per every 1 million flying hours, and fewer than 10 percent of individuals involved in these incidents suffer fatal injuries. However, fear of flying is common. According to one study, 10-40 percent of individuals are fearful flyers.

A travelers fear of flying can skew their perception of the risk associated with air travel; this phenomenon has been demonstrated by the current Ebola virus disease (EVD) epidemic. The EVD epidemic has resulted in some flyers experiencing fear that is disproportionate to the relative risk of becoming infected with EVD while in flight.

Fear of flight can also result in individuals using riskier forms of travel. This was demonstrated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. Researchers attributed decline in the demand of air travel post-9/11 to a rise in travelers having developed a fear of flying and increased media coverage. As a result, fatalities related to motor vehicles significantly increased after Sept. 11, 2001, because travelers opted to use more dangerous road transportation over air travel.

Several Factors Shape A Persons Response To Air Travel

An individuals response to flying is formed by one's experiences and interpretation of these experiences. It is important to note that ones response to air travel is continuously evolving; therefore, a person who was not intimidated by flying in the past could develop discomfort in the future. A persons experience regarding air travel is shaped by the following impacts:

  • Social influences like cultural attitudes toward air travel
  • Previous flight experiences, such as a trauma, associated with air travel
  • Media coverage
  • Ones physical response(s) to the cabin environment, like vertigo and motion sickness

The individuals interpretation of these experiences is mediated by their cognitive perception of the risk(s) associated with air travel and psychological characteristics, such as mood, sensitivity to anxiety, coping strategies, and/or other phobias such as fear of heights or confined places. These factors will guide how the flyer responds to air travel i.e., has no anxiety, has anxiousness, avoids air travel, or develops a specific phobia to flying.

The Manifestations of Fear Associated with Flying Vary Greatly

The personal manifestations associated with fearful flyers can range from slight discomfort to extremely intense anxiety. A person who experiences the latter may have a specific phobia to flying known as aviophobia. A person with aviophobia will experience immediate anxiety when exposed to or anticipating air travel, and will try to completely avoid it. Adults with aviophobia recognize that their fear is irrational but are unable to overcome it. However, aviophobia, as with many other phobias, is only diagnosed when it significantly disrupts ones daily life and/or causes considerable distress. Not all individuals who have flight anxiety experience extremely intense fear associated with air travel. Yet, even low levels of anxiety can negatively impact a persons livelihood. Furthermore, fear associated with flying can also be the result of another fear, such as a fear of travel, heights, confined spaces, crowds, losing self-control, illness, bad weather, etc. The wide variation of personal manifestations associated with the fear of flying make its diagnosis and therefore treatment difficult and complex.

Recommendations for Fear of Flying

Air travel is statistically safer than riding a train, driving a car, and even staying at home. However, a large proportion of people fear flying, and the number continues to grow. Fortunately, fear of flying can be effectively treated. Individuals who have a fear of flying should seek help from a healthcare professional if they experience any of the following sensations:

  • The thought or experience of flying causes you intense, disabling fear, anxiety, and/or panic.
  • You recognize the fear of flying is excessive and unreasonable.
  • You avoid certain situations and places because of your fear of flying.
  • Your avoidance disrupts your normal routine and/or causes significant distress.
  • You have experienced a fear of flying for at least six months.

Individuals who find that their fear of flying is a hindrance but do not meet the criteria for seeking help from a healthcare professional can still benefit from such treatment. In addition, the guidelines in the box below can be used when they are preparing for a flight and/or experiencing recurring tension or anxiety while in flight.


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