Lorna McDowell, a business travel consultant at Eton Travel Group in Wokingham, says her fear of flying is born out of “the anxiety of it all”.
“Flying is a military operation for me – I have to be there with lots of time to spare. It’s also the ‘not knowing’ – that scientific side of things where I think ‘how does that massive thing stay in the air?’ and what is going on when you hit major turbulence.”
While McDowell does fly – “you sort of have to when you work in travel” – she says she went on Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear course in the hope that she would feel more in control when getting on a plane and be able to relax.
She says the course offered information on the technical side of flying that helped her to feel more confident about stepping onboard an aircraft.
“The pilot explained the training they go through and details such as how the engines and wings work.”
But the psychological aspect of the course also gave McDowell some useful pointers.
“The psychologist explained how you can calm yourself down using breathing techniques. She told us the trick of putting an elastic band around your wrist that you snap if you feel your thoughts running away – it brings you back to the present and is a useful tip for everyday life – not just when flying.”
At the end of the course, McDowell and the other course participants boarded an aircraft and took off for a short flight to Southampton.
“When we got off the plane, we were all chatting and lots of us were saying we didn’t even notice some of the turbulence. The pilot made it all seem so normal – he was even worried we might not get any turbulence, so when we did he came over the tannoy saying: “Phew – there’s some of that sexy turbulence!” He made a joke of lots of things, so it made us relax and see that turbulence wasn’t a rare occurrence. It happens all the time.”
She says the cabin crew were really attentive too. “They came round to check we were all OK throughout the flight. It was reassuring to hear about all the training they go through and that they undergo regular questioning before boarding flights about safety and medical procedures.”
McDowell says the course has given her lots of ways to approach her next flight differently.
“Next time I fly, I’ll use the relaxation techniques we learnt and if we hit a bumpy patch, I’ll have that pilot’s voice in the back of my head saying “sexy turbulence” – that will definitely make me feel better,” she laughs.
Marion Amas, strategic operations manager at Reed & Mackay, says the course exceeded her expectations and that she has already convinced four others to try it. She says some of her corporate clients can be anxious about flying and that she picked up some useful tips to help assuage their fears.
“Although I’m not hugely scared of flying myself, I can get anxious before a flight and often have a drink to calm down the butterflies,” Amas says.
“But as someone who books travel all the time, it is great to have an insight into what makes others anxious about getting on a plane. I book corporate clients who travel here, there and everywhere and some find travel laborious and don’t like flying.”
Amas says she often finds going through security and passport control to be daunting and the course addressed this by explaining the different types of security screening you might encounter and highlighting that the pilots and crew all undergo the same scrutiny.
However, she says the real value was having the pilot onboard the short flight that the group took from Gatwick to Southampton.
“Every flight should have narration explaining what’s going on – even if it’s pre-recorded. He told us all the detail, such as how fast we were going at each point and when the nose was levelling out and what we would feel.”
She says the course “opened her eyes to how clients might feel about a trip”.
“Now if I had a client who was worried, I would ask them what part of the flying experience made them feel that way – the airport, the plane itself or maybe feeling trapped. Then I’d use some of the things I learnt to help reassure them. For example, they might be worried about the wing falling off but once you understand what it is made of and how flexible it is, you feel a lot better about it.”
Richard Conway, co-director of Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Without Fear programme, gives his top tips to help customers (or agents) with an aversion to air travel.
1. Think about the fact that many of the pilots and crew have families of their own. Would they be fl ying in an aircraft if they were at all worried about their safety or thought they were taking a risk?
2. If you stand up and turn around 360-degrees then do it again with your eyes shut you will inevitably feel more off balance and disorientated the second time. Shutting your eyes and putting your head in your lap on a plane will make you feel worse not better. Instead try to look out the window and you’ll have a much better sense of the aircraft being level.
3. A similar tip is to make your own spirit level. If you hold a bottle or cup of water while you fly, you’ll notice it barely moves even when the plane is turning – it shows that you are safe and level. You’ll also notice that when you are served a hot drink on a train it comes with a lid to help avoid spillage but on a plane your tea or coffee comes without one – that’s becaue it' safe to do so.
4. Anything you need to know onboard you will be told about. Sometimes people are nervous about the “bing bong” noises and assume they are secret messages. For example those first “bing bongs” you hear let the crew know that the aircraft has clearance for take off – it’s a quick and simple way to communicate a basic message.
5. When an aircraft reaches 1,000-1,500 feet it no longer requires the same power that it did at take off . At this point the power reduces and the nose of the aircraft will lower slightly too so it can feel as though you are falling but in fact you are still climbing.
6. If you drive, do you check the oil, tyres and engine every time before setting off ? Probably not. A plane has the equivalent of an MOT every time it flies.
7. Finally to best prepare yourself for the flight make sure you arrive at the airport in plenty of time so you don’t feel stressed and anxious before you board and avoid drinking much alcohol or caffeine before or during the flight. One drink on a plane is the equivalent of two on the ground so it’s best to drink lots of water to stay hydrated.