Fear of Flying and Other Travel Anxieties

I used to be afraid of flying.

Not just a little nervous when the plane hit turbulence, but terrified for a couple of days before the flight, days during which my stomach would churn, my heart would pound, and I’d make arrangements with friends to look after my cats when I was gone.

At the airport, I could never understand how people could look so calm at the gate. I’d scan their faces and wonder if their photos would be shown with mine on the news when flight-whatever-I-was-on gained the same grim resonance as TWA 800, Pan Am 103, Valu Jet…

On the plane, I’d sit stiffly with every muscle in my body straining the plane up. I’d keep an eye on the flight attendants faces for signs of horror and despair. I’d wince when the pilot would say “we’ll have you on the ground in just about 30 minutes.” In just how many pieces, captain? I prefer one. I would be exhausted upon landing.

Many people tried to talk me out of this fear. I turned their reassurances into mental mantras. Safer than driving, safer than driving, safer than driving, I’d think, as I clutched the armrest. I would reason with myself that I was in more danger on the way to the airport than I was at the moment I was airborne, which is an indisputable fact. But I also unhelpfully envisioned myself, sitting in my seat, simply dangling in the air, out at 30,000 feet.

I really didn’t understand what kept such a giant machine in the sky. I was told it was the air itself, but when I held a pen over my tray table and let go, it just dropped. In my experience, air wasn’t a good antidote to gravity. (Physics was never my strongest subject.)


Although I remember feeling that fear, it’s hard for me to re-embody that fear now, since I am now utterly unafraid of flying. I don’t think about it at all, ever. I’m not even afraid during severe turbulence. I’m not afraid when reading about aircraft skin fatigue, or pieces of planes and passenger’s remains recovered in the deep ocean. In fact, it’s hard for me to keep my eyes open on a plane, somnolence that would have utterly mystified me in my anxiety-ridden mid-twenties.

I never did discover a single magic cure for my flying fear; rather, it was a combination of factors that banished it forever.

First, exposure: I had to fly a lot for my work, and every time the plane took off and landed was evidence that planes did that routinely—took off, landed.

Second, distraction: I realized that sitting in the chair thinking about death wasn’t helping. I brought work to do with me and I’d close the window shade to block out the peril of the clouds, and get lost in something I was writing.

Third, analogy: right about this time, my husband and I bought a cruiser, which we’d take out on the Northern Chesapeake Bay on the weekends. It was often choppy up there and the boat would bang around. I realized that turbulence was just like that in an airplane; choppy air was like choppy water. And I wasn’t afraid of plummeting through the water to the bottom.

Fourth, statistics: I finally looked them up.  They were so low, it was really ridiculous. How ridiculous? The death rate in recent years has been at the most 0.4 per 100 million passenger kilometers performed, which is the number of passengers multiplied by the number of kilometers traveled. (PDF) Worldwide. It’s far less for commercial carriers inside the United States. To put this in perspective, in the US you are way more likely to kill yourself than you are to die in an air accident. (PDF)

Even with all that, the fear left me gradually. First I realized I wasn’t worried days before the flight. Then I realized I could read a magazine on the plane instead of working furiously. Then a book. Then, on one flight, I fell asleep.

* * *

Tegucigalpa, Honduras, as seen from its CathedralI still had other anxieties when traveling. Like, for instance, the first time I went to Honduras. Prior to the trip, I spent a lot of time reading the State Department’s warnings about the country, as I recall, a collection of grim anecdotes about robbery-murders in pizza places. I mulled these anecdotes as my plane flew low over folded green mountains to land in Tegucigalpa.

As the plane taxied, I took note of old burnt out planes, piles of industrial trash, and buildings without windows. My notes from the city include scrawls about machine guns, a woman resolutely climbing up stairs to a barbed wire laced apartments, broken glass windows in the Cathedral, horses foaming at the mouth, skinny mangy dogs. Although I was treated with nothing but kindness, and even though there were moments of tranquility, like the one I recorded at left, at the city’s cathedral at dusk,  the details amounted to an overall sense of menace.  I was happier when I left the city for the coast.

And yet, I ended up loving Honduras, and returned the next year. In the months between my two trips, a commercial plane crashed spectacularly at Tegucigalpa’s airport, overshooting the runway, killing four passengers.

It was then that I learned that the airport was considered quite perilous—the History Channel named it the second most dangerous in the world, for its mountainous approach, its short runway, its “stop and drop” landing. International carriers stopped flying there for a while. I don’t remember feeling especially alarmed by any of it, either at the time or when I read about it, although it occurred to me that for once, I might have been in more danger in the air than on the ground.

Maybe. But probably not.

This is my response to Paul Theroux’s piece in the New York Times this weekend, about assessing danger and traveling in turbulent times. “For the modern traveler there are recent and sharp reversals — the overthrow of longstanding governments, earthquakes, a volcano, the release of radioactivity into a blue sky and cows’ milk — all in the span of a few months.” He points out that two countries considered to be utterly safe by travelers—Japan, New Zealand—very suddenly were not.

My first thought was that travelers tend to do a bad job of assessing danger—as evidence above, I have tended to worry about things that were not really problematic, perhaps while overlooking actual danger. But then I realized that we don’t have to be traveling to fall prey to this thought pattern: human beings tend to worry about the dramatic than the commonplace. Most of us worry more about a homicide at the hand of a stranger than a motor vehicle accident, for instance, or even more likely, death from heart disease. So I’m with Theroux, you might as well travel. You might feel like you’re less safe than you are at home, but feelings aren’t facts.

Photos by Alison Stein Wellner.

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