One of the most frequent questions I get via email is: How did you overcome your fear of flying? I always take the time to reply to people because I know how debilitating and embarrassing it can be or feel. But there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. According to a recent article in Time Magazine, “at one point or another, as many as 12.5% of Americans will struggle with a phobia — ‘an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger’ — according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Of these, a fear of flying, or aviophobia, is one of the most common, with estimated prevalence ranging from 2.5% to 6.5% of the population.”
So you aren’t the only one who is afraid to fly. I’m not a doctor and I’ve never played one on TV so I can’t give you any medical advice but I do know what worked for me. My story might be a little different from yours but to give you some background, here goes: I grew up forty miles outside of New York City in the small town of South Norwalk, Connecticut. We didn’t fly often because it was expensive and chaotic for my parents to travel with four kids. Back then, airfares were so much higher than they are today so people didn’t jump on planes like they do now.
From an early age, I was fascinated with air travel. My first flight was when I was four years old and we flew from New York to Fort Lauderdale (on Eastern Airlines, I think). I can still remember looking out of the window on takeoff and having my mind blown at how fast we were going down the runway and then how everything on the ground, from the people and cars to the buildings quickly began to look like toy figures. When we landed, I couldn’t believe how amazing it was to go from freezing cold, dreary Connecticut to hot and sunny Florida in just a couple of hours.
I only flew a couple of times before I turned 17 and never internationally. When my sisters moved to Australia, around the same time the hit movie Crocodile Dundee came out, I talked my mom into going on a dream trip to visit them. It took me months of persuasion and then we met with a travel agent who put the hard sell on. Finally, we planned our trip: New York-San Francisco-Honolulu-Sydney-Perth-Sydney-Fiji-Los Angeles-New York, all for my high school senior year spring break. I was going to miss an extra week of school and spend a couple days in most of the places, making it the most incredible senior break trip of all time.
But then the unthinkable happened. My mom took me to my asthma doctor for a pre-trip check-up, since I had recently been diagnosed. When the doctor found out our plans, she said, “Wow! You’re going all the way to Australia?! You know that’s a 20+ -hour flight and you might have a difficult time breathing because planes are pressurized?” I was like, “WHAT? What the heck does pressurized mean?”
To make a long story short, she put the fear of God into me so that when we arrived at JFK Airport a few days later, I had a full-on anxiety attack. All of a sudden, my body began to tingle and I told my mom as we were having breakfast at a restaurant with my dad near the gate that I couldn’t get on the plane. My mom laughed. She thought I was joking since this whole trip was my idea.
When she realized I wasn’t joking and that I had tears in my eyes, she started crying, too. She had no idea what was wrong with me, she had spent all this time and money on our trip and she wasn’t going to see her daughters. Then my dad started crying for all the reasons above … and that he wasn’t going to have the house to himself for two weeks.
I still remember the flight attendants coming out and saying, “Last chance. Plane doors are closing.” I shook my head ‘no’ and the plane door closed and pulled back from the gate. Suddenly, life wasn’t as great as I thought it was. I was disappointed, embarrassed and scared.
My parents were amazing. They took me to a number of psychologists who tried to figure out what was wrong. Over the next three years, I was not only afraid to fly but at times, afraid to leave the house. Then everything started to change for the better when my mom found a homeopathic doctor, which was unheard of in the late ‘80s. Dr. Currim explained that the reason I was having so much anxiety was because I was on too much asthma medication. So, he cut back on the dosage and gave me some all-natural pills, which could have been just sugar for all I know. But it worked.
My big break came in late January 1990 when the phone rang at 7am. My mom woke me up and said that a friend’s mother was on the phone. Her eldest son had backed out of a trip to visit her youngest son (one of my good friends), who was in alcohol rehab in Tucson, Arizona. She knew I was afraid to fly but was hoping I would go in her eldest son’s place. She felt I would be a good representative to visit her son since I don’t drink (I’ve never been drunk in my life), and the ticket was all paid for. Back then (pre-9/11), you could fly under someone else’s name as they didn’t check IDs.
I couldn’t imagine myself getting on a plane. I looked out my bedroom window to a depressing scene of days-old, dark, dirty snow and could feel the cold seeping in from under the frame. How incredible would it be to go somewhere warm, I thought. But then the little voice inside my head woke up and reminded me I couldn’t do it.
Then I remembered that my sister had given me a daily horoscope calendar for Christmas and I thought to myself that if it says something positive, I would give it shot. I quickly tore off the page for January 27th and sure enough, it read something like: You’re going to go somewhere tropical today! How fortuitous. I yelled to my mom to pack my bags (yeah, I was a tool and couldn’t even pack my own bag!) and I was off.
Since I didn’t have weeks, days or even hours to think about the trip and everything was go-go-go, I didn’t have time to worry. The next thing you know, I’m running through JFK airport with Mrs. Smith and her daughter, trying to catch an American Airlines flight to Dallas, then onto Tucson.
When we landed, I could feel the monkey off my back and the little voice in my head was speechless. I was liberated. But it wasn’t over, although I suddenly felt alive again. It was great to hang out with my buddy for a couple of days and just before things were about to get tense due to some mandatory role-playing sessions during Family Week, I got a call from my dad. My aunt had just died in Los Angeles and since I was so close, he suggested I meet him and my uncle the following day at LAX. I jumped at the chance as I had always wanted to go back to California (I went once when I was 14).
Unfortunately, it was a sad occasion but because of my great aunt’s death, my life really changed forever. I fell in love with California and told my parents I was ready to move there and go to college come August. I applied to the small Marymount College Palos Verdes (now Marymount California University) and was accepted and it was just what the doctor ordered. A small (750 students), nurturing school where everyone knew each other and came from all over the world.
I started dating a Scottish girl whose parents lived in Asia. Her dad was a big bank executive and moved around a lot. The first summer, they invited me to Singapore but I gave some lame excuse about why I couldn’t go. But the real reason was I was still afraid. I was afraid to travel internationally because I didn’t know if I would be able to breathe on a long flight or how my asthma would be in some far-off place. The fear was crippling and it suddenly made me miserable again. The following summer, Sally invited me to Hong Kong for a month and I told myself I had to do it.
The only problem was that Sally only flew business class using her father’s frequent flier miles and I didn’t have any and couldn’t afford a premium ticket. So, I started doing some research and found a consolidator who sold business class tickets for just $300 more than coach. Looking back, I really took a chance because it was cash only but fortunately my generous parents paid it.
The travel agent jerked me around so much so that I thought I had gotten scammed. Days, even weeks went by and I still didn’t have a ticket. I think this actually helped keep some of my torturous mind games at bay because I was more worried about getting the ticket than about how I would breathe on the flight. The morning of the afternoon flight, I still wasn’t sure if I was even going because I still didn’t have the tickets in my hand.
I was assured the tickets would arrive that morning and sure enough they did while I was in the shower. FedEx came to the door so I didn’t hear the doorbell but Sally saw the “sorry we missed you” note. I called FedEx and they said I wouldn’t be able to get my package until the following day, which in some sad way, made me relieved. My fear had kicked back into gear and this was a great excuse for me not to go. Then Sally called FedEx back and demanded the driver turn around and deliver the package and sure enough, he did.
We rushed to the airport and the moment I got on the plane, my fears subsided. Being in business class on a United 747-400 really helped, too. I was so relieved that I could breathe on the long flight and on the ground in Asia. When we landed in Hong Kong and I walked down the plane’s stairs at Kai Tek Airport, I not only felt that monkey jump off my back again but felt like I’d just hit a Grand Slam in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series to win it for my team. My life was forever changed and I not only got addicted to travel but to accruing miles and that’s how I eventually created my website, JohnnyJet.com.
Tips for Getting Over Fear of Flying
I told you my story was different. The good news is that I not only got over my fear of flying but I have helped others get over theirs as well, including my good friend’s father who hadn’t been on a plane his whole life.
First, find out what you’re afraid of about flying. Is it not being in control? Crashing? Claustrophobia?
I was afraid of not being able to breathe and not being in control. I was worried that if something happened, we couldn’t just pull over to the side of the road. So I had to overcome that but one way I did it was to make sure I had every medicine I possibly needed on the plane (in my carry-on, not in my checked baggage). When I started flying so often, I realized that on almost every flight, there’s some kind of medical personal onboard: nurses, EMTs or doctors. I’ve been on countless flights where the flight attendants asked if there was a doctor onboard because someone was sick and sure enough, there were always more than one. I then dated a flight attendant who confirmed this.
I also learned that if something really does go wrong with your body, pilots can make an emergency landing (as long as it’s not over the ocean) but chances are you would be fine. Out of all my flights, I’ve only had to divert once because of a medical emergency and fortunately, it wasn’t me. But once, on a flight from New York to San Francisco, I suddenly became dizzy and almost fainted. The flight attendants were amazing. They had me sit in their jump seat and they administered oxygen and I was fine after a few minutes.
Although I was more afraid of not being in control, turbulence freaked me out, too. So I read the statistics and then had a pilot explain to me how safe airplanes are and that wings are built to withstand turbulence like going down a bumpy road. There’s even an app to help passengers deal with turbulence.
My friend’s father was afraid of crashing. To help overcome this fear, look at the stats. According to the National Safety Council, the chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 205,552 while the chances of dying in a car crash are 1 in 102. No wonder why a British Airways captain said once upon landing at LAX, “Welcome to Los Angeles! The safest part of your journey is now over so be careful out there on the roads.” I’ve also heard a number of pilots say they feel much safer flying than driving.
If you’re claustrophobic, pay extra for an exit row, bulkhead, premium economy or better yet, a first class seat. The extra space will really help. Be sure to pre-assign your seat so you don’t have to worry or take a chance about losing the best on the plane (consult SeatGuru.com to find out which seats those are). I find aisle seats to be the best for people who are claustrophobic but everyone is different.
If you fly first class on a long flight, you most likely won’t want to get off the plane. Here’s how you can do it affordably by using miles and points.
One of my aviation colleagues tweeted from a travel conference that the number one reason why people are afraid to fly isn’t crashing. It’s panicking. And I believe it.
One thing I used to do before airport security became so strict (after 9/11) was go to the airport and pretend I was getting on a plane to get used to my anxiety. Or if I was flying on a short flight, like LAX to San Francisco, I would stand by the gates going to Asia, Australia or Europe and pretend I was getting on that flight. Believe it or not, my hands would get sweaty just pretending.
Every time I would fly, I would listen to my favorite music or read the sports page of a game I really wanted to know the results of. And I always found the worst part of my fear was leading up to the flight and takeoff. Once we were in the air, I was fine.
I also found speaking to flight attendants and pilots really helped because it made realize that these people do these flights multiple times a week (sometimes a day) for a living..
If you don’t like takeoffs and landings, then be sure to book a nonstop flight. Even if that means driving to an airport a lot further away. Here’s a list of alternate airports with their driving distances.
If you don’t want to fly long distances, then book shorter flights. When my wife and I would go on round-the-world trips, we would always book flights that were about six hours. Not just because we get antsy on long flights but we wanted to see more destinations. Multiple times we would fly Los Angeles to Toronto (4.5 hours),. Toronto to London (6 hours), London to Doha (6 hours), the Middle East to Bangkok (6 hours), Bangkok to Tokyo (6 hours) and then Tokyo to Los Angeles (9 hours). It was amazing and I look forward to the time when my son can take those trips, too.
There are plenty of apps, books and courses that can help with a fear of flying. Just do a search for your area. One of the best fear of flying courses is taught by British Airways in London, where you can go in one of their $20 million flight simulators to learn all about the ins and outs of flying.
I hope my story and tips and tricks help. If they do, please leave a comment below or let me know if I left something out that could help those with a fear of flying.
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