As aviation enthusiasts, it may be a little hard to imagine that there are people who still suffer from aerophobia in this day and age.
Aviophobia, aerophobia, flight phobia– these are all terms that mean a fear of flying. And it’s more common than we think. A significant number suffer from this condition: as much as 40% of the US population. 2.5% of that number have what is classified as a clinical phobia – that is, aviophobia so extreme that people simply avoid flying.
What causes fear of flying?
In effect, the process of flying gathers together a whole variety of anxieties and fears. The crowded space that can trigger claustrophobia, the idea of being hijacked, the likelihood of catching bacteria and viruses, the anxiety of sitting next to strangers– these things and more may surface during a flight.
Other anxieties, such as fear of vomiting (emetophobia) and fear of heights (acrophobia) can also be associated with aviophobia.
And of course, there is the actual fear of flying itself. People with aviophobia can fear different aspects and stages of flying, such as takeoff, landing or turbulence.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, most people with aviophobia are not chiefly afraid of their plane crashing. The anticipation of flying, or even just thinking about being on a flight, can trigger panic and anxiety attacks.
Arrival at an airport, the bustling venue from which passengers fly, can be a draining experience in itself, so by the time people board their flights, the mind may already be under a lot of stress.
A report from a Long Island psychology clinic states that the mind craves control when under stress, and being onboard a flight takes away one’s control.
“On an airplane, there’s nowhere to go to relieve the stress. There’s no more comfortable area to relax. On an airplane, you still have 30, 60 minutes, maybe even hours to go.
This takes away the illusion of control. You can’t fly the plane. You can’t get off. You can’t stop turbulence. You can’t go anywhere. The illusion of control – even though it was always an illusion to begin with – goes away,” the report says.
Flying is very different from traveling in a land vehicle, when you can pull over if you are feeling uncomfortable. Even a rollercoaster ride ends quickly and you know you can get off in a matter of seconds. But when the mind goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode during a flight, panic attacks tend to occur.
However, the report in question also states that in those instances, the control is just an illusion. One may still be in danger even if they stop the car or get off a scary ride.
Aviophobia in the age of social media
With people spending so much time on their phones these days, browsing social media where every little thing is shared, publicized and at times exaggerated for views and more exposure, it’s easy for their opinions to be swayed.
Contemporary passengers are quick to capture, and share on social media, every detail of their flight experience, from regular turbulence (with added sensationalized captions), to unruly passenger episodes.
All of these things can exacerbate the existing phobias and anxieties associated with flying.
What are the symptoms of aviophobia?
Regardless of the trigger factors, physical symptoms of aviophobia tend to include some of the following symptoms:
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis)
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- Trembling or shaking
- Upset stomach or indigestion (dyspepsia)
- Clouded thinking
There are times when these symptoms are displayed overtly and clearly. However, people have different ways of expressing them.
To see how these symptoms can appear in real life, below is a two-part video of an anxious flier who documented his experience flying.
The traveler is London-based Peter Ruppert, who suffers from anxiety and severe panic disorder.
Ruppert wants to raise awareness of the day-to-day challenges of having the disorder. He regularly uploads clips on social media showing him going about random activities such as taking public transportation, eating in restaurants or going to the gym. These chores and errands may seem normal, even mundane to other people, but they can be a struggle for those with anxiety and panic disorder.
The video clips show Ruppert boarding an EasyJet flight. What is normally an exciting moment for seasoned travelers is obviously an ordeal for Ruppert, who can be heard muttering, “Oh, Lord” as he boards the aircraft.
Prior to takeoff, the flight’s pilot announces, “We’ve got some bad news for our flight”, because they are trying to undertake a ‘reset’ of one of the aircraft’s systems. The “bad news” is just the likelihood that the flight will be delayed. However, to an anxious flier like Ruppert, the announcement triggers negative emotions that make him question the safety of the flight.
The pilot continues to say that, if they cannot complete the reset, it will mean that the aircraft is not able to take anything in the cargo hold.
Filming his reaction to the announcement, Ruppert can be seen in tears, later approaching the flight crew to get more information about the situation in order to help prevent him from overthinking.
After describing his fears and anxieties, one of the flight crew, presumably the pilot, can be heard giving Ruppert an explanation that there is nothing wrong with the plane.
In the video, Ruppert explains that eventually, he tried hard to relax and not overthink. In a caption, he says that the hypervigilance makes him sensitive to every small feeling, noise and sensation.
He later hears someone pressing the call button, and a change in the aircraft engine noise. These random things may normally just be ignored by any other passenger, but the video shows how they can trigger panic in Ruppert.
Ruppert also shares that he has a lot of anxious tics, such as grinding his teeth and nodding to his heartbeat.
How can fear of flying be treated?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there is no specific diagnostic test for aviophobia or aerophobia.
Aerophobia can range from the mild (so, even if it makes a person anxious, they will fly if they have to) to the severe (in which case, the sufferer may not have flown for five years or more because of a conscious decision to avoid flying).
The management and treatment of aviophobia depends on many factors, such as the severity, triggers, underlying phobias, and how each treatment / method suits each sufferer.
Some of the best-known methods of managing a fear of flying are:
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) considers exposure to feared triggers an “active ingredient” for overcoming phobias, adding that avoidance keeps one’s phobia alive and intense.
A case report on Combined Approach of Psychopharmacology and Gradual Exposure Therapy to manage fear of flying explores the use of virtual reality exposure (VRE), combined with diaphragmatic breathing exercises. This can help one ease into the experience before going on an actual flight.
Controlled exposure in stages is one of the methods that trained therapists use on subjects. One of the first stages is the use of VRE, and eventually getting onto an actual flight with the therapist.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a ‘talking’ therapy, or psychotherapy, involving a mental health counselor (psychotherapist or therapist), in a structured way, attending a limited number of sessions.
Although this is a traditional form of managing anxiety disorders, a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that skills acquired in CBT treatment were associated with reduced flying anxiety, and other positive long-term effects.
As a short-term solution, medication can sometimes be prescribed by a physician to help alleviate the symptoms of aviophobia such as anxiety and nausea.
Anti-anxiety medication such as diazepam (Valium) or alprazolam (Xanax), or motion sickness medication such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), can be taken prior to flying.
It is important to consult a professional before taking these, and more importantly, it’s vital to keep in mind that these are not long-term solutions.
Arming yourself with information
As seen from Ruppert’s ‘flying with anxiety’ video clip, asking the flight crew questions helped to keep him from overthinking. Information, data and facts from the right sources can ease one’s anxiety and fears about the dangers of flying.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a comprehensive accident and incident data section that states that there’s only a one in 11 million chance of being involved in an airplane accident, and even then, 96% of passengers survive these accidents.
The more one is educated about these facts, the less the likelihood of fear and anxiety taking over.
Dial a Pilot
Dial a Pilot is a group of professional airline pilots who can individually talk to passengers who are afraid of flying.
Anxious flyers can schedule a call with their website, then get matched with a pilot. The assigned pilot then gives the passenger a call. During the 15-minute call, the pilot can address any fears or questions that the would-be passenger may have.
On its TikTok channel, Dial a Pilot’s founder Kyle, a professional pilot himself, addresses common concerns, such as how pilots deal with bird strikes and turbulence.
Personalities with fear of flights
Aviophobia affects almost half of the US population, and that includes some notable personalities and celebrities who have shared their techniques for managing their fears.
Actress Jennifer Aniston told People that she has a “real fear of flying”, and found herself in a not-so-ideal scenario when a private plane, a Gulfstream aircraft carrying her and other celebrity friends, had to turn around and make an emergency landing in 2019.
Aniston said that, to manage her anxieties, which include a fear of flying, she engages in meditation and deep breathing exercises, along with seeking emotional support from close friends and family members.
Aniston must manage her aviophobia very well, because in 2015, she starred in a series of ads for Emirates.
Travis Barker, drummer with the American rock band Blink-182, was involved in a 2008 South Carolina Learjet 60 crash that killed four out of the six people onboard.
The only survivors were Barker and disc jockey Adam Goldstein. The accident left Barker with third degree burns on more than half his body, requiring him to spend 11 weeks in a hospital.
It wasn’t just physical scarring for Barker, who also saw his personal bodyguard and assistant killed in the incident.
After the crash, Barker avoided flying for 13 years.He flew again for the first time in 2021, crediting his then-girlfriend (now wife) Kourtney Kardashian, for helping him overcome his very understandable fear of flying.
On August 15, 2023, Barker shared on his Instagram stories that his latest tattoo addition was the phrase ‘Time flies’, as a nod to having conquered his aviophobia.
In 2019, the American singer-songwriter experienced a landing scare when she was flying to the UK for the Glastonbury Festival, where she was scheduled to perform.
Cyrus’ sister Brandi recounted the “very scary” ordeal on a podcast, where she shared that Miley and their mother, who were both on the flight, were nervous flyers and tend to feed off each others’ fears.
In a June 2019 Twitter (now X) post, Cyrus acknowledged her fear of flying, and also how she loves to conquer what she is afraid of.