Will Fear of Flying Hit New Heights?

A spate of highly publicized emergency aircraft landings in the past three weeks may be enough to elevate apprehension in some travelers who fear flying, psychological experts say.

But the fact that nobody has been injured in the course of these emergency landings could actually be heartening to some. As more details of the cases become apparent, according to experts, it is unlikely that the incidents will scare many Americans away from air travel.

Still, the incidents have led to some tense moments. On Tuesday afternoon, an American Airlines jetliner bound for Honolulu was forced to make an emergency landing at Los Angeles International airport after smoke was detected in the cabin.

Meanwhile, Australia-based Qantas Airways has weathered three emergency landings in the last two weeks. The most dramatic instance occurred on a July 25 flight out of Hong Kong after an explosion blasted a hole in the side of the aircraft, causing a rapid loss of cabin pressure.

And on July 22, a Continental Airlines flight carrying seven members of Congress, including Texas Rep. Ron Paul, made an emergency landing after mechanical problems reportedly led to depressurization in the cabin and deployment of the oxygen masks.

"Of course, that's going to make people more frightened," said Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, and director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, D.C. "But as scary as the situation is, fortunately, thank God, nobody was hurt. It shows that the airlines were able to handle these things in an effective way.

"If people are able to say, 'wow, that was really scary, but nobody got hurt,' that's pretty reassuring."

When Fears Take Flight

"I used to be afraid of flying. I didn't fly for the first half of my life," said Martin Seif, psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, N.Y. "One of the reasons I became a psychologist was to help people with their fear of flying."

It was, perhaps, the experience of overcoming his fear that also led Seif to create the "Fear of Flying" workshop, a six-session program that he conducts with the help of an American Airlines pilot. Guiding participants through a gradual exposure to the inside of an airplane -- and, eventually, a round-trip flight between New York and Boston -- Seif helps others conquer their fears of flying.

But he says that, for some, the most important part of dealing with flight anxiety is to have a full understanding of the true risks of flying, even in the face of highly publicized incidents.

"The media loves to pay attention to things that are dramatic and look dangerous," Seif said. "These may have been close calls, or they may not have been. For people in the know, it might not have been a very close call at all.

"Anxiety loves ignorance. It basically allows us to wonder 'what if?' in the most catastrophic way possible."

Seif and Ross also note that fear of flying is actually a confluence of a number of different fears -- fear of enclosed spaces and fear of heights, for example. And there is a gulf of difference between those whose fears are based on rationality and those who have true flying phobias.

"Fear of flying has to do with the fear of a plane crash, turbulence, something going wrong," Ross says. "It is the fear of being on a plane and feeling something is going to happen to you. With a phobia, a person's fear is really a fear of the fear."

For those with severe phobias, it doesn't matter whether the latest news involving an aircraft is positive or negative; the idea of flying will seem just as petrifying.

In fact, Seif says that out of the total number of people who seek treatment for some form of flying fear, he believes only a relatively small number -- perhaps 5 to 8 percent -- are legitimately concerned about something going wrong with the plane on which they are traveling. And for this group, frightening reports could reinforce their fears.

"These people will say they know that flying is much safer than other forms of transportation. They all know that in their heads," he says. "But they get so filled with fear at the idea of something going wrong that the figures really don't matter that much to them."

Seif adds that the reports could also have an effect on those who may not have a full-blown fear of flying -- but who might still feel weak in the knees during takeoff and landing.

"There are a bunch of people who are mildly fearful of flying," he says. "For these people, those of them who hear of these so-called close calls, it raises their anxiety by a notch."

Bringing Fears Down to Earth

For those who harbor flying fears, Ross says that a bit of perspective can often help make their experience as relaxing as possible.

"The first thing I would say is that flying is probably the safest mode of transportation available," she says. "If you take the number of people who die in plane crashes every year and compare it to many other causes of death, it is very minuscule."

Ross also recommends a few other tips to keep anxiety in check:

An alcoholic drink may be helpful in calming nerves. But throw back more than one, and you could be compounding the problem. Ross says that too much alcohol can make a flyer feel even more out of control of the situation, which could in turn make them much more nervous.

You might want to take it easy on the coffee as well. Too many caffeinated beverages can make you jittery and unable to relax.

When planning your trip, allow yourself enough time to get to the airport without having to rush. As Ross notes, "You don't want to add anxiety on to anxiety."

For more tips on conquering flight anxiety and other fears, check out the Anxiety Disorders Association of America Web site at www.adaa.org.