Scared to fly

By | April 29th, 1999

Q: Help! I have pre-flight jitters. I’ve only flown on one other occasion, and I spent the whole time nervous and convinced I was going to die. Now I have to fly again in five days, and I don’t know how to relax.

– Terri Weimer, Athens, Ohio

A: There’s every reason to be terrified of air travel these days. Planes are dropping out of the skies for the strangest reasons.

Take last year’s crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia, Canada. Some reports blame the in-flight entertainment system on the catastrophe. Or the December downing of Thai Flight 261, which may have been caused by, of all things, a mobile phone. Investigators suspect that the wireless device may have interfered with the aircraft’s critical altitude-adjustment equipment during landing.

Even if your flight goes without a hitch, as most of them do, you’re still far from safe. The passenger next to you is more likely than ever to throw a mid-air temper tantrum — it’s called “air rage” in the business — sending you to the emergency room after you arrive. That’s what happened to US Airways flight attendant Renee Sheffer, who was assaulted by passenger Dean Trammel. Her assailant was convicted earlier this year in a Baltimore court and is awaiting sentencing. By some accounts, air rage incidents have shot up by more than 400 percent during the last two years.

Think it’s safer in Europe? Sorry. On a recent trip to Spain, flight attendant Fiona Weir was was beaten over the head with a broken vodka bottle. British pop star Ian Brown got jailed for threatening to cut a crewmember’s hands off. And traveler Elisabeth Elliott (no relation to yours truly) reportedly bit and kicked a flight attendant and assaulted the co-pilot on a British Airways flight after being refused a drink. She went to jail for 15 months.

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Don’t panic, Terri. You’re in good company. One-third of us are afflicted with aerophobia, according to a survey commissioned by aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

You’ve got a few choices. First, you could simply not fly. About 25 million Americans outright refuse to get on a plane, and considering all that’s going on, it’s completely understandable.

Second, you could get help. Counseling sessions, such as Tom Bunn’s popular SOAR program, can do the trick. If you don’t want to shell out $95 an hour for a therapist, a videotape might work. One series, called Flying With Confidence is written and produced with commercial airline pilots and covers everything from takeoffs to turbulence. Another well-known tape series is published by the Pegasus Fear of Flying Institute.

Finally, you could self-medicate. Tell yourself that that flying is 33 times safer than driving, according to a University of Michigan study. Order a stiff drink (just one) or take a sedative before your trip.

Then take a deep breath — and board.

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