How to Get Over Fear of Flying
For some, overcoming the fear of flying or the anxiety associated with travel can be accomplished with some rational thinking and problem-solving. For others, the fear of flying is something deeper that may require some professional guidance.
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.)
For those with only a mild aversion to commercial flying, here are several tips and advice that will help reduce anxiety and help you prepare to fly:
- Understand the statistics (Spoiler Alert: It would take over 20,000 years of daily air travel to be killed in a plane crash)
- Be informed of built-in safety features and their backups
- Learn about how planes handle turbulence safely
- Have a plan, with backups, for your travel itinerary
- Choose the right seat
For those with a more severe case of aviophobia (aka aerophobia, the fear of flying), you may want to seek a different form of treatment that is monitored by a licensed health professional. Some of the treatments that may be prescribed by your doctor or therapist are:
More specifically, your fear of flying may arise from other forms of anxiety that are related to air travel. Some of these other fears and anxieties may include:
- Acrophobia (fear of heights)
- Agoraphobia (fear of situations where escape may be difficult or help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong)
- Claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces)
- Mysophobia (aka Germ-a-phobia)
- And/or other mental health conditions
The good news is that there are treatment options available to overcome these fears and anxieties. Your doctor or therapist can help you identify which treatments may be the most effective for your individual situation.
Understand the Statistics
Regardless of the intensity of your aversion to flying, being well-informed is beneficial to understanding reality and not allowing emotions to takeover. Our plane crash statistics page has more insights into data provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but to give you a brief overview:
- From 2015 to 2020, there have been, on average, 0.34 accidents per 100,000 departures on a large commercial airplane.
- From 2015 to 2020, there have been, on average, 0.21 serious injuries per 100,000 departures on a large commercial airplane.
- From 2015 to 2020, there have been, on average, 0.01 fatalities per 100,000 departures on a large commercial airplane.
Think about it this way: to depart 100,000 times, you would need to depart on a flight every single day for the next 274 years. Furthermore, the numbers above represent fractions of accidents, serious injuries, and fatalities.
For accidents, there is approximately 1/3 of an accident for every 100,000 departures, meaning that to reach 1 recordable accident, there would need to be 300,000 departures. This equates to 822 years of daily flying!
To be seriously injured, it would take approximately 1,370 years of daily flying. Finally, to become a fatality, it would take approximately 27,400 years of daily flying.
How Planes and Pilots Handle Turbulence Safely
One of the reason we’ve seen a significant decline in incidents resulting from commercial flying is the advancement in technology and methodology that has allowed planes and pilots to better fly the aircraft. A few of the most notable are:
- Weather Radars
- PIREPS - Pilot Reports Filed
- Turbulence aware, set up by the International Air Transport Association (IATA)
- Flyways AI - Artificial Intelligence to plan routes
Weather Radars - Proper planning is a must. Pre-flight weather reporting allows pilots to be aware of what they may or will encounter during a flight. Additionally, many modern airplanes are equipped with radars that provide details of any unexpected weather ahead. From this information, pilots can make adjustments, if possible, for a smooth flight.
PIREPS - ‘Pilot Reports Filed’ is what ‘PIREPS’ stands for. These are reports submitted by pilots to the Aviation Weather Center to report where turbulence or other weather conditions were encountered within the last several hours. A live look at today’s submitted reports can be seen on the Aviation Weather Center website.
Turbulence Aware - The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has put together a platform to better inform pilots and create better situational awareness for all. Similar to PIREPS, the IATA is focused on sharing accurate and objective data with pilots, dispatchers, and flight attendants so they can better be prepared for their travel route.
Not all airlines are involved with Turbulence Aware. Some major ones include:
- A list of other airlines can be found here.
Flyways AI - Airspace Intelligence is a company focused on increasing efficiency and predictability for airlines through optimizing routes for better fuel efficiency and safer traveling. They accelerate and improve operational decision making for everyone from the operations center to the flight deck. Again, not all airlines utilize this system. Alaska Airlines is the only known airline using this system.
How to Address an Extreme Fear of Flying
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Fear of Flying
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, also known as CBT or Exposure Therapy, works by incrementally exposing you to the source of your fear (the airplane and/or flying) in a controlled environment.
CBT has been proven to be an effective treatment to overcome the fear of flying along with any of the direct or indirect triggers associated with it.
CBT helps to you work through and confront the anxious feelings you may develop throughout your flying experience. For some, there are specific triggers that cause extreme anxiety, while others experience lingering, negative thoughts that are constant throughout the entire flight.
In-Person or Online Classes for Fear of Flying
In-person classes are your best bet for overcoming your fear of flying. These classes seek to address your fears directly, whether it’s take-off, landing, turbulence, or the entire travel experience, without the use of medications or sedatives. In the technical sense, this is called ‘cognitive-behavioral therapy’, or ‘exposure therapy’.
These classes will have trained professionals there to assist you in a controlled environment. So, in the event your anxiety begins to cause a panic attack, you can quickly be calmed down without any real danger or embarrassment.
If you do not have an in-person class near you, there are two other alternatives. Online classes are available, and some virtual reality headsets offer a similar experience.
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 and immediate access to materials by experts dedicated to people who are scared of flying. Click here for an overview of our top recommended fear of flying courses.
Virtual Reality for Fear of Flying
Virtual reality (VR) is an interactive simulation of a real-world environment. With the use of a headset, you can be taken to a lifelike airplane or airport environment. Essentially, this is a form of exposure therapy without the need to physically be in an airplane or at the airport.
Multiple studies have confirmed that virtual reality can be an effective treatment method for PTSD, agoraphobia, and other disorders.
In comparison to other treatment options, virtual reality to treat fear of flying has a low barrier to entry and the time commitment required for treatment is low. DIY VR headsets can be created with only your phone.
Hypnosis for Fear of Flying
Some people swear by it, others think it’s just a bunch of hot air. Whatever your pre-existing belief of hypnosis is, one thing is for certain: it will not work if you don’t believe in it, or resist it. In other words, you have to be willing to give it a shot and eliminate even the most remote idea that it won’t work for it to potentially be successful.
Hypnosis can be used to conquer your fear of flying, but it may not work for everyone, even if you do believe it will work. You have the option to work with a hypnotist in person, or online, however we suggest you try the other methods listed above first. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Medication have scientific grounds for their success, versus the anecdotal confirmations hypnosis has.
More can be read on hypnosis for fear of flying, by following the link below.
Modern hypnosis looks more like the setting above, rather than a swinging pocket watch.
Medication for Fear of Flying
If you’ve tried a class or don’t have the time to do a full class, a trip to the doctor could be a possible answer. There are some commonly prescribed medications for treating the fear of flying; however, please consult with your doctor before using any drug or self-medicating with over-the-counter options. Do not mix any drugs or medications with alcohol.
If you’d like to learn more about some common prescriptions, follow the link below.
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 types of therapists specialize in talk therapy.
- A psychologist holds a Doctorate degree (PhD 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—MD’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.
7 Tips to Reduce Airport Stress
Even for travelers without a fear of flying, the fast-moving pace of the airport is enough to trigger some people’s anxiety. Let’s take a look at some methods for reducing stress while traveling, which hopefully will help to reduce or eliminate your flight anxiety.
Book Flights According to the Time of Year
As the saying goes, “If you fail to prepare, you have prepared to fail.” Smooth travel starts with purchasing the right tickets. While there aren’t any ‘wrong’ tickets you can buy, choosing certain layover times and areas you’re flying through can make your travel experience easier.
- What time of the year is it?
- What layover options do I have?
The time of the year matters because of the weather. Chicago is much more likely to experience delays and cancelations due to snow and other inclement weather than Dallas Fort-Worth. On the other hand, in the summer, Chicago is expected to have milder weather as opposed to potential heat delays in Texas.
Inclement weather is a common occurrence at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in the Winter.
Secondly, you’ll want to make sure you have enough of a buffer in your layover. Ideally, you’ll get a direct flight in the first place, but that isn’t always available. Sometimes your first flight may arrive late or face a more considerable headwind on the way to your first stop.
This isn’t uncommon, and if there’s only a one hour buffer between your first and second flight, you’re likely to miss your second flight. Aim to have at least a 2-3 hour layover if possible. There are so many factors out of your control that having a little wiggle room can be helpful.
Check Everything the Night Before
For most people, this is pretty obvious, but pack everything you need the night before your flight departs. Do not wait until the last possible minute. What can go wrong will go wrong. Secondly, this gives you additional time to remember items you may have forgotten the first time around.
Make sure you have the right carry-on and understand the rules of the airline you’re flying on. If your luggage exceeds certain dimensions, you will be required to ‘check it,’ meaning it goes under the belly of the plane. There is an extra cost with this, and if you don’t do it in the first place, it can cause you to be late for boarding.
Have a Plan to Get to the Airport Quickly
If you’re in your home town and don’t live too far from the airport, it’s best to ask a friend or family member to take you. Or, at the very least, take an Uber, if not too expensive. Parking can get expensive for longer stays, and not having to deal with traffic on the way to the airport prevents unneeded stress.
Plan on arriving at the airport at least 2 hours before the scheduled takeoff time for your flight if flying domestic. For international flights, plan on closer to 4 hours. During the holidays, it would be wise to arrive 3-4 hours early for domestic flights and potentially 5-6 hours for international flights.
Checking bags and getting through security are your biggest hurdles. It’s highly recommended to apply for and receive TSA Pre-Check a few months before your flight, or register with CLEAR. Both of these programs make getting through security so much easier; it’s a no-brainer to purchase them, especially if you have children or travel frequently.
Check-In on your phone and get a Paper Copy
If you have a smartphone, you are usually allowed to check-in for your flight up to 24 hours before it’s scheduled to depart. “Checking-in” basically means you’re saying, “Yes, I plan on being at the gate, ready to fly at the scheduled time.”
If you don’t have a seat assigned, this is typically when your seat is assigned. However, if it’s not, don’t fret. Some seats aren’t assigned up until you begin boarding.
If you do check-in on your phone, it’s recommended you retrieve a paper copy of your boarding pass from a kiosk. This ensures that, if your phone dies, your screen cracks or the app doesn’t work for whatever reason, you have a back up ready to use. Remember, you must have a boarding pass in order to board the plane.
Get TSA Pre-Check or CLEAR
Apart from making sure you reach your connecting flight, getting through airport security, managed by the TSA, is one of the most stressful parts of commercial air travel. As mentioned earlier, this is why it’s recommended to purchase TSA PreCheck or a membership to the CLEAR program.
Both TSA PreCheck and Clear ensure you won’t have to remove your shoes, belt, and scramble your way through security with tons of other travelers. All you have to do is put your carry-on through the scanner and then walk through a metal detector. Cake.
Make your In-Flight Items Easily Accessible
Almost smooth sailing, or in this case, flying! This is one of the most uncomfortable parts of flying - trying to move sometimes 100+ people and their belongings through a narrow aisle way quickly and efficiently.
There is one thing that isn’t going to help you: standing close to the gate for your boarding group to be called. It’s better to sit and wait; otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot more standing than you want.
Before boarding even begins, it’s a good idea to move any of your inflight items into an easily accessible pocket on your personal item (purse, backpack, etc.). Otherwise, you’ll be reaching over people, and moving other people’s luggage to get to the overhead compartment.
For example, putting your headphones around your neck, your book in hand, etc. Get everything out of your bag now, so you won’t have to do it in the middle of the aisle way while everyone else is trying to board.
After scanning your boarding pass, whether the paper one or on the app, you’ll walk through the Jetway. The Jetway, also called a ‘jet bridge,’ is an enclosed, movable connector that allows people to board the side of the plane easily from the rest of the actual airport.
Be sure to have your belongings easily accessible. There is not much space to maneuver around during boarding.
Take your Time at Baggage Claim
After your flight has landed at your destination, make your way to baggage claim if you checked a bag in when you first arrived at your home airport. Typically, the flight crew will announce which carousel your bag is at after the plane has landed and docked.
If not, check the monitors around each carousel and begin the wait for your bag to pop out on the conveyor belt.
Know the Facts About Airline Safety
Our 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.
Emergencies are extremely rare, but in the event of one, proper procedures are in place to evacuate the plane safely.
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. However, 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 we crunched the most recent data available from the National Transportation Safety Board - Bureau of Transportation Statistics, we 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 page.
For all transportation fatalities from 2012 to 2018, a mere 1% were the result of air travel.
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 people, 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 on 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 a 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 include 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 fails, 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 the 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 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 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s 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 probably 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 an average of two to three months on aircraft systems as well as on 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.
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 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.
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.