How to Overcome the Fear of Flying

Has getting over the fear of flying become a priority for you? Do you imagine that everything that could go wrong on a plane, will go wrong? Does your anxiety cause your heart to race uncontrollably before, during and after the flight? Do you fear flying to the point you avoid even getting on a plane?

If any of these are familiar to you, you’ve come to the right place. Most fear concerning flying is irrational—it is a set of fears based on events that will very likely never take place. This guide will addresses safety issues of the air transportation industry and help you begin approaching flying based on facts rather than unfounded fear. Here are five tactics to help you overcome the fear of flying:

Know the Facts About Airline Safety

Virtually all forms of flight anxiety come from three root fears: 

  • Fear of the unknown
  • Lack of trust in the airplane itself
  • Lack of trust in airline personnel (pilots, mechanics, air traffic control, etc.)

My aim is to shed some light on the unknown and share relevant information on the airline industry in general to help bring your level of anxiety down. It is important to note that the fear of flying is not a rational response to a legitimate danger.

It is a response based on irrational fear from within your brain.

As you learn the facts about airline safety, you will be able to replace irrational fears and anxiety with a calmer mindset based on facts about airline industry safety.

No one can truthfully say that air travel is completely risk-free, and that you will never have a bad experience on a plane. But it is the safest mode of transportation. Consider this quote from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) website:

Air travel is the safest mode of mass transportation. According to Dr. Arnold Barnett of MIT, based on the accident rate over the last few years, you would have to fly on average once a day every day for 22,000 years before you would perish in a U.S. commercial aviation accident. In 1998 there were more than 10 million departures and not one fatality aboard a commercial aircraft.

- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -

When I crunched the most recent data available from the National Transportation Safety Board and Bureau of Transportation Statistics, I saw that the numbers are even better: There was only a 1 in 20 million chance of being on a commercial flight between 2012 and 2016 that resulted in a fatal accident.

Additionally, consider that of all traffic deaths, 96.2% were from automobiles. Trains were a distant second at 2%. For more information on airline safety, see our plane crash statistics page. 

Airline Safety FAQ

Now we’ll take a look at common questions involving the fear of flying, along with the facts involved:

What is the Chance of Dying on a Flight?

There was a 1 in 3.37 billion chance of dying in a commercial airline plane crash between 2012-2016, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Isn't a Car Safer?

Statistically speaking, a car is definitely not safer than an airplane. But to many, a car seems safer. A big part of this rationale goes back to the trust issue: In a car, you control your destiny and feel safer, while in a plane, you are not in control and experience more anxiety. This may be true—to an extent—but does it mean you are safer?

Consider this: To obtain a pilot’s license, you need years of training. To obtain a driver’s license for yourself, you merely need to pass a basic written and driving test. Plus, as a driver, you cannot control what other drivers do. Other drivers often drive while intoxicated or are distracted by talking on the phone, texting or fiddling with the radio.

Pilots, on the other hand, are constantly monitored through radio during a flight, all the way through the landing. From 2002 to 2007, there were 109 deaths due to aircraft crashes according to the FAA. During the same time period, 196,724 people died in automobile accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The FAA has estimated that flying is about 200 times safer than automobiles, which the previous statistics bear out. 

How Do Airplanes Stay in the Air? Are They Really Safe?

Statistics reveal that 73% of anxious flyers are afraid of mechanical problems during flight. So an important part of getting over this fear is understanding how an aircraft works and learning to trust it. There are four forces that work together to allow a plane to fly: gravity, drag, lift and thrust.

I won’t get into the scientific explanations, but suffice it to say that the process allows planes to fly as naturally as it is for us to walk. As one pilot said it best, “planes are the happiest in the air.” Everything about a plane is designed to fulfill its purpose—to get its passengers and crew safely from one place to the other through the air.

Safety procedures includes repair and upkeep. Airlines engage in ongoing routine maintenance and overhaul planes as needed. For every hour that it flies, a modern airplane undergoes 11 hours of maintenance.

It may surprise you to know that jet engines are much simpler than those in automobile engines or even lawnmowers. This makes them much more durable and less likely to break down. And in the unlikely event that one of the engines fail? A plane is perfectly capable of running on one engine. 

Is Turbulence Dangerous?

Turbulence is not dangerous. A bumpy ride on a plane tends to make those with flight anxiety even more nervous. But once you understand what causes it, you’ll understand why turbulence is common and not a cause for concern. You may have learned from weather reports that air pressure can fluctuate from one area to the next.

When a plane flies through an area of low pressure to high pressure (or vice versa), it causes a “bump” in the ride. These bumps aren’t dangerous, but pilots intentionally navigate away from strong turbulence to ensure the smoothest possible ride and the least anxiety for passengers. 

Another fact to keep in mind: Modern planes are designed to handle much more intensive turbulence than they would ever encounter. Note: I've noticed that many airlines, including Delta, Southwest and Spirit now use the term "rough air," while United still uses "turbulence."

Is it Safe to Fly During Thunderstorms?

It is perfectly safe to fly through thunderstorms — planes are equipped to withstand lightning strikes. But a lot of people have a particular fear of flying during thunderstorms and other inclement weather. The weather is always monitored before and during the flight time, and sophisticated weather radar in planes can detect storms from 160 miles away.

If weather is too dangerous for flight, the flight will be delayed, or if you have already taken off, the pilot will fly around it or arrange a landing at an alternate airport.  In addition to thunder and lightning, rain also doesn’t affect a plane’s ability to fly.

Will the Plane Crash Into Another Plane?

A plane crashing into one another is highly unlikely. Airliners are always in contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC). ATC can track all planes’ movement by radar and ensure they maintain a safe distance from each other. Additionally, planes have Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) on board which lets them know to adjust their path as needed, so this is another concern that is largely unfounded.

Can the Plane Doors Come Open During the Flight?

No, plane doors will not come open during the flight. Once the aircraft is pressurized, there is nothing to be concerned about; it is impossible for the plane doors to be opened. At around 30,000 feet, there is 20,000 pounds of pressure holding them shut.

How Qualified Are Pilots? What Training Do They Receive?

Pilots are extremely qualified to safely operate aircraft. Airlines hire people who already know how to fly. These pilots come either from a military or civilian background and have already earned an air transport pilot (ATP) license and logged a minimum of 1,500 hours required as a prerequisite to applying at a major airline.

The training pilots get from airlines after hire focuses on learning to fly commercial airplanes and following Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines. Potential hires are thoroughly screened. They receive a battery of psychological tests to assess abilities and to ensure a stable personality.

They must then prove their abilities in a simulator. A physical and health history is also obtained; the presence or family history of a serious condition will likely end an applicant’s candidacy for the job. At the end of the process, a panel of pilots will perform an in-depth interview of the candidate.

When pilots are hired, they are trained for a period of time—an average of two to three months—on aircraft systems as well as FAA and company policies and procedures. The pilot must pass computer generated tests and an oral exam given by an FAA representative or FAA-appointed representative.

Next, simulator training prepares the pilot for a wide variety of events—both routine and abnormal—that a pilot will encounter in the air. This training covers instrument gauges, computer systems and emergency procedures. The newly hired pilot must demonstrate proficiency in every aspect of the job to an FAA or FAA-approved instructor (also called “check airman”) before continuing training.

In the first 15-25 hours on the plane they are assigned a company check airman. New hire pilots begin as a “first officer” and are supervised by the captain, who is also in charge of the rest of the crew as well as the plane and its cargo.

First officers begin on a one year probationary time period. The captain submits an evaluation of a new pilot’s performance each month. If the ratings are satisfactory, the probationary status is removed. It may decrease your anxiety to know that both captains and first officers undergo regular and extensive continuing education. They are also rechecked for proficiencies—annually for first officers, every two years for captains.

Take an Online Course

An online fear of flying course is a convenient way to get specialized help. A number of multimedia courses are available with practical tips and meaningful insight on how to learn to trust the plane and its crew, to cope with anxieties surrounding your perceived lack of control and to calm your episodes of panic.

One of the cons of online courses is the lack of a personal touch—some prefer dealing with someone in person. The SOAR fear of flying program partially addresses this by offering online counseling directly with the founder, Tom Bunn, an airline Captain and Licensed Professional Counselor.

The pros are the relatively inexpensive cost compared to other therapies and the ability to immediately access materials by experts dedicated to people who are scared of flying. Click here for an overview of our top recommended courses.

See a Counselor

If you prefer in-person therapy, you can search for qualified clinicians in your area who specialize in treating patients with anxiety symptoms or disorders. The following is a breakdown of common mental health

professionals and their qualifications:

  • A counselor or therapist hold a Master’s degree plus a particular license such as Licensed Professional Counselors or Licensed Clinical Social Workers. These type of therapists specialize in talk therapy.
  • A psychologist holds a Doctorate degree (Ph.D or Psy.D) in psychology. Psychologists also specialize in talk therapy but also perform functions such as psychological testing and research. A handful of states allow psychologists to prescribe medication.
  • Psychiatrists are physicians (or medical doctors—M.D’s) with a specialty in mental health. Many psychiatrists provide talk therapy. Many psychiatrists, however, focus more on medication management and leave the traditional hour talk therapy sessions to counselors, therapists and psychologists.

Download an App

Remember the early iPhone commercials touting, "There's an app for that!"? In the case of flight anxiety, there's an app for that. Several, in fact. Here are a few we like:

  • Soar App: Created by Tom Bunn as a an addition to the SOAR course (mentioned above) or as a standalone aid. Features a G-force meter, weather and turbulence information and on-demand videos for dealing with anxiety and panic.
  • Flying Calmly App: Supplies turbulence information along your flight so that you know what to expect.
  • Am I Going Down?: Input your flight information, and this app will calculate how likely the plane will crash. Seems dire, but given the minuscule chance of any flight going down, it is designed to inspire confidence in the safety of the flight

Apps are best for those with milder forms of anxiety, but can be a handy on-the-go resource. For additional apps and details, see our fear of flying apps page.

Join a Community

FlyerTalk is one of the top forums covering air travel tips and information—you can get information about any aspect of the flight, including hotels and destination info. But it is made up of mostly travel enthusiasts, not fearful flyers, so it doesn't offer a lot of material focusing on travel anxiety. However, there are a few threads around the topic. Just go to the home page and use the search function to find what you're looking for.

A forum that does cater to flight anxiety is the SOAR forum. It's free to join and you can share stories, advice and tips with other people also working to get over the fear of flying.

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