Airlines

Despite recent crashes, flying fears can be overcome

July 29, 2013 at 12:20 PM ET

Even the most experienced travelers may be feeling some anxiety in the aftermath of the July 6th crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport and the rough landing of a Southwest Airlines plane with collapsed nose gear on July 22 at LaGuardia Airport.

“There are always incidents, but these were bigger than the ones you have day in and day out, like emergency landings or smoke in the cabin,” said SOAR, Inc. founder Tom Bunn, a 76 year-old retired airline captain-turned therapist who’s been counseling fearful fliers since 1982. “In the Asiana crash almost everyone got out. And with the Southwest 737 nose gear problem it was not really life-threatening. Still, it’s understandable that people will be concerned.”

But concern doesn’t have to lead to fear, said Bunn, whose forthcoming book “Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying” offers travelers strategies for dealing with flight-related anxiety.

Bunn’s SOAR tips include concentration exercises to control "fight or flight" hormones, focusing on the “what is” aspect of a flight instead of an imagined “what if” checklist, understanding the natural noises an airplane will make during a flight and making an effort to meet the captain before the flight. “That helps you from feeling alone,” said Bunn. “It also puts you in personal contact with control.”

Those strategies worked for Beth Shubert, a 53 year-old event planner and designer in Glen Rock, N.J who used to turn down vacation ideas or any business travel that required flying.

“I have a vivid imagination, which helps in work, but when a plane crash happened I’d feel everything and imagine what it was like to be on the plane. That became a movie that played over and over and made me more fearful to fly,” said Shubert.

When her parents moved to Florida about 10 years ago, Shubert decided she could no longer avoid flying and found the SOAR program online. “What worked for me was learning concrete facts and statistics about what makes flying the safest way to travel and not letting my mind wander and worry about what could happen,” said Shubert, who was eventually able to fly to London to celebrate her 20th wedding anniversary.

The fear of not being fine in airplane is what holds many people back from an interesting job, a promotion at work, the opportunity to visit family or the chance to go on a fun weekend with friends, said Pat Rowe, spokeswoman for Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport. The airport has been sponsoring a course called “Overcoming Your Fear of Flying” for 26 years and Rowe said interest remains steady, “with no spikes in the aftermath of aviation incidents.”

The course culminates with a real airplane flight, which gives students a chance to try out their newly learned travel skills in a real-world environment.

“The program also supports the airlines flying out of MKE,” said Rowe, “which now have hundreds of new passengers who are able to fly comfortably.”

Shubert's experience in overcoming her anxieties has led her to advise those who find themselves approaching the jetway with trepidation to “focus on the fact that the plane is in the air and that you are going forward. You are fine.”

Find more by Harriet Baskas on StuckatTheAirport.com and follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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