Tipps und Tricks - Flugangst

Fear of Flying – Even the strongest are not proof against it

Martina Roters
9 minutes

It really can hit anyone

Not just those who always went weak at the knees whenever they even just thought about flying. Even frequent flyers, who habitually used to sneer at people who were afraid of flying – ping! – suddenly they too are afraid of flying!

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Recently a film appeared on German television in which the regulars at a campsite present their macho leader –nicknamed “Captain” – with a seaplane for his 50th birthday. Unfortunately, the former pilot is not at all happy about it, quite the opposite: One night he destroys the plane with his own hands in an act of sabotage, just so that nobody realises that he has been struggling with a fear of flying since his last heroic piloting deeds.

A pilot who is afraid of flying. How is that possible?

Can fear of flying develop just out of the blue?

Well, how does a phobia develop anyway? Fear of flying, aviophobia, is just one of many phobias, that is, pathologically exaggerated fears. The writer of this article consulted an expert in order to throw some light on theoretical aspects: Eskil Burck, a qualified psychologist, whose latest book* considers, from a research perspective, the most effective strategies for dealing with fear and panic.

WingMag: How do phobias arise?

Eskil Burck: Most fears are learnt in one of the following three ways:

WingMag: So people who have “always” been afraid of flying have either learnt the fear from someone in their immediate surroundings or they have watched a disaster film or heard of a plane crash in the news. And those who have already flown, they had a flight with an engine fire or turbulence – is a situation that is just perceived as dangerous sufficient to cause a fear of flying?

Eskil Burck: Exactly, a phobia is not rational. But there is also good news: From the latest research we know now, better than ever before, that we can use the same learning paths to make fears disappear again.

Phobias are curable!

WingMag: In articles on the subject you can often read sweeping statements such as: “The best way to cure a fear of flying is to fly.” Is there any truth in this?

Eskil Burck: Psychologically there is indeed a lot of truth in it, but pedagogically it can naturally be a problem.

Anxiety patients avoid confronting their fears at any cost. Thus a mother refrains from visiting her children who have emigrated to Australia, because she would have to get on a plane.

Others, who can still fly, try to anaesthetise their fear by taking sleeping pills or drinking a lot of alcohol. But even if they manage to survive a flight in this way, as a rule the fear doesn’t decrease nearly as much – if at all –as it would have done if they had managed it without this type of help.

Namely, anxiety decreases primarily when you stand up to your fear and realise that nothing terrible happens.

Incidentally, that was how Goethe rid himself of his fear of heights: He climbed up the highest building of that time, the cathedral in Strasbourg, and right at the top of the spire he stood up to his fear until it finally subsided.

Such an exposure therapy is indeed a short and very successful form of therapy. But many shy away from the massive and brutal confrontation and never start the therapy. And then they can’t be helped.

WingMag: Are there gentler alternatives?

Clever anti-anxiety strategies

Eskil Burck: Yes, there are many possible anti-anxiety strategies that perhaps take a bit longer to work but are indeed effective. If we assume that the brain makes a false evaluation, for a start you have to make sure that the anxiety-provoking faulty information is countered with a flood of correct information.

WingMag: So, for example, the fact that planes are the safest means of transport?

Eskil Burck: Yes, but it is best not to leave it in this abstract form but to make it more tangible: Statistically, you could theoretically get on a plane and fly 19 000 years long, continuously, without being killed.

Or instead of watching pointless disaster films, which only fuel your own fears, you can inform yourself intensively about the strict safety regulations for the construction and authorisation of aeroplanes.

Distance yourself!

Eskil Burck: An important aspect is also being able to distance yourself. Studies have shown that it is helpful to talk to yourself as “you”, almost as if you were your own coach: “Yes, sure, you’re frightened, but you’ll get through it.”

Californian researchers also tried out the following conceptual trick: The test subjects were told to envision how much significance an unpleasant experience would have for them “in the future”, “in a week” and “in 10 years”.

WingMag: The result is not difficult to guess: The greater the imagined time interval, the smaller the burden of anxiety.

Our readers – particularly when they are perhaps personally affected – will certainly be particularly interested in possible treatments. In your latest book there is a section with the provocative heading “Therapy via internet – Is a therapist always necessary?”

Is a therapist always necessary?

Eskil Burck: A good therapist, with whom one has a relationship of trust, is naturally worth a pile of gold. No doubt! But astonishingly there are also other ways, without one.

For example, researchers experimented with an internet-controlled therapy for fear of spiders (and in a second study, fear of snakes) with video material, explanations and assignments. And although the immediate success was somewhat less than with a “flesh and blood” therapist, the differences at the follow-up check-up one year later were almost non-existent. However, the contact to a therapist wasn’t reduced to zero but to 3 × 25 minutes – that means, there was still individual support. Thus the therapist noticed when a candidate left out a task in the online report, contacted him and encouraged him to continue.

In the meantime there exist large meta-studies with thousands of test subjects that prove that an internet-based therapy is hardly inferior and indeed has great advantages: no waiting, no need to travel long distances, flexible scheduling and low costs.

WingMag: Thank you for these insights into the state of the research.

Speaking of the state of things: Of course, treatment for fear of flying is not covered by the statutory health insurance in Germany. For Germany, the „Psychotherapie-Richtlinie“ (“Psychotherapy Directive”- in German) sets out the conditions of treatment and under which circumstances who can be treated how, if the statutory health insurance is going to pay. In the case of the pilot in the film, by the way, the therapy was paid for not by his health insurance but by his pension insurance fund…

Fear-of-flying courses

Well, the author has taken a look around to see what is offered commercially to combat fear of flying. In particular airlines offer fear-of-flying courses in cooperation, including Lufthansa (German). There is a group course for nearly 900 Euros, which does, however, include a genuine flight at the end. 98% success rate. For somewhat less money other providers can be found – especially at small airports – and at the bottom of the scale there is a purely online course: „Fearless-Flyer“ from Easy-Jet for just 47 Euros – with a promised success rate of 95%.

Here a some more helpful tips from a flight attendant:


Well, for that price I didn’t think twice. The offer for the Fearless-Flyer course was too tempting.

Tried out…


Because much of what we learnt in the interview above was put into practice. Obviously, what it can’t offer is individual access to a therapist – understandably at that price.

There are 16 video modules with a total running time of 2.5 hours. A large part is taken up with an explanation of how our brain works, with sometimes some really amazing demonstrations. Then there follows the comprehensive part “Ask the Pilots”. There, not only are all the characteristic noises and phenomena that can occur during a flight presented and explained, but also the questions treated are exactly those that play a role in the anxiety phantasies of aviophobics. Let me take as an example a fact that has probably – up to now –only been noticed by people who are afraid of flying:

Why, shortly after take off, does it feel as if the aeroplane were descending (“falling!?”)**

The final modules are concerned with practising specific exercises (some of them in real time!):

Last minute

As I’m not afraid of flying, it wasn’t possible to test the course on myself, but I would always recommend it as a first attempt to a good friend because it puts the least strain on the finances.

The best thing about it, I think, is that you can follow the course shortly before a planned flight and also repeat parts of it, even the evening before departure or – provided there is sufficiently good mobile internet – while waiting at the airport! In particular with the exercises, that removes the last remaining uncertainty.

If she wanted to move up to another level, I would recommend a visit to a 4D flight simulator

7 tips in practice

Whether the fear of flying is emerging or has been treated, our tips are helpful in either case.

  1. Suitable choice of seats for fearful people (where you feel the movement of the aircraft least and there is also little input for horror phantasies): In the centre of the aircraft, above or in front of the wings, away from the window.
  2. NO alcohol, NO tablets. Experts all agree that alcohol and tablets are not a good idea and sometimes even counterproductive.
  3. Relaxation: Learn simple relaxation or breathing techniques before the flight. The simplest breathing technique consists in consciously pulling the stomach in and out and counting while breathing, making sure that you always breathe out longer than you breathe in.
  4. Sleep? Depending on the length of the flight, that can be a good option. If possible, book the flight so that you are exhausted anyway and just want to sleep. Look for a seat that is far away from the galley, toilets and walls (because that is where families are accommodated). Take “music to fall asleep to” with you.
  5. Give your stomach something good! Take your own snacks with you. Chocolate really does help. Especially because we are conditioned to expect it to. You can divide it into tiny portions and allow it to melt in your mouth slowly and with enjoyment. Drink frequently too!
  6. Distraction is the most important thing: Take e-books or audiobooks with you if you are going on a flight without good inflight entertainment.
  7. If your thoughts start going round in circles, say “STOP”, immediately, before you begin to obsess further. Back to tip number 6. You can also call a flight attendant, who will surely take your problem seriously. You could also play positive mind games: Observe the other passengers (in their anxiety-free normality) and in your imagination, for example, ponder which jobs they do. Or even invent funny things about them and laugh inside. For laughter has always been the best medicine.

* Book title: Angst – Was hilft wirklich gegen Angst und Panikattacken? (Fear – What really helps against fear and panic attacks?)

** The nose of the aircraft is lowered again during the ascent phase, which attentive people notice

by Martina Roters

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