A few weeks ago, my wife and I boarded the plane at Vancouver International Airport, on our way to Costa Rica. I was flipping through the in-flight magazine, she was watching other passengers mill about, until everyone was in their seats.

The flight attendants closed the doors, checked all overhead compartments, and our plane geared up to pull out of the gate. We made it about 10 feet before the electrical system died.

Yes, died.

The plane hushed and came to a stop. The passengers glanced at each other with obvious surprise. A moment later the captain’s voice crackled over the intercom:

“Uh, yes, it seems our electrical system has conked out on us. But don’t worry folks, this is actually our secondary system, which we only use to taxi in and out of the gate. We don’t use this system in-flight. We’ll just restart the engine and be on our way.”

My wife reached over and clamped her hand around mine. Needless to say, our comfort towards flying did not increase.

Runaway Anxiety

I used to be okay with flying. There was a bit of nausea during takeoff and landing, but otherwise, I never quite let the cold, clammy fingernails of terror trickle down my spine.

But the incident above was not the only one during our trip. All four of our flights experienced complications: from the air-conditioning malfunctioning, to electrical storms, to closed airports, to emergency diversions for refueling.

Could it be we just have bad luck? Not so, I realized, considering Rolf Pott’s described a similar situation in a recent World Hum post:

We started flying in circles. Then the pilot kept coming back on saying, “Another 20 minutes.” Then he said we were running out of fuel so we were going to have to land in Baltimore. In this day and age, when you get these cryptic messages from your pilot, you get a little nervous. We were coming in for a landing in Baltimore and were about 10 feet off the ground when we pulled up again. That was a little freaky.

And consider this sobering statistic reported by Chris Elliot:

Buried in the latest government figures about the airline industry is one number that is bound to fill every air traveler with dread: Complaints are up an eye-popping 77 percent from a year ago.

“In April, the Department received 1,246 complaints from consumers about airline service, up 76.7 percent from the 705 complaints received in April 2006,” it says. “But 4.9 percent fewer than the 1,310 filed in March 2007.”

Flying really has gotten worse.

Statistically Speaking

On the ground, it’s easy to convince yourself the chances of actually dying in a plane crash are slim (1 in 5051).

But in the air, while circling a massive electrical storm, it’s more difficult to stop the vivid imaginings of the plane being ripped apart, the engine falling off, a lighting bolt striking the wing, a gremlin unfastening the doors, etc…

Why do we fear the unlikely causes of death? I previously explored this topic “What You Think Probably Won’t Kill You” and again found it revisited in a recent article by Scientific American.

Basically, the author wrote, psychological science has identified four factors that feed our risk intuitions:

  • 1. We fear what our ancestral history has prepared us to fear – With our old brain living in a new world, we are disposed to fear confinement and heights, snakes and spiders, and humans outside our tribe.
  • 2. We fear what we cannot control – Behind the wheel of our car, but not in airplane seat 17B, we feel control.
  • 3. We fear what is immediate – Smoking’s lethality and the threats of rising seas and extreme weather are in the distant future. The airplane take-off is now.
  • 4. We fear threats readily available in memory – If a surface to air missile brings down a single American Airliner, the result will be traumatic for the airline industry. Given the difficulty in grasping the infinitesimal odds of its being (among 11 million annual airline flights) the plane we are on, probabilities will not persuade us. Intuitive fears will hijack the rational mind.

Makes sense. But try as I might, I spent my recent flights with stomach clenched and sweat greasing the palms of my hands. While I was able to fight off complete panic attacks, the journey was far from a pleasant experience.

By the time the planes landed, it would take hours before any sort of relaxation returned. And just the thought of hopping back on a plane is enough to quiver my core.

The Remaining Options

It’s possible you’re in a similar situation. So what are the alternatives? I figure there are three:

I could stop flying. But I love traveling so much, this is not really an option.

I could work on convincing myself that air travel is safer than being on the road, that accidents are rare, and that I lack ability to control the outcome of a flight anyway. Whatever happens, happens. Deal with it.

Or lastly, I could try something I’ve never done before: the wonderful world of anxiety suppressing drugs.

Ian MacKenzie is editor of Brave New Traveler, and co-founder of the blogging community TravelBlogger. Aside from writing, he spends his time exploring the fundamental nature of existence and wishing he did more backpacking.

Are you in a similar situation? How have you dealt with the fear of flying?