Fear of Flying Amplified by Flurry of Air Disasters

PHOTO: A nervous passenger grabs the armrest of his seat during a flight in this stock photo.
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The recent flurry of air disasters does little to comfort nervous fliers, who suffer from what some experts call a “perfect storm” of fears.

“You start with fear, and then you have evidence that the fear is correct,” said George Everly, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “What makes it over the top is when you don’t know why the airplane crashed.”

Just today, an Air Algerie airliner en route from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to Algier scarrying 166 people disappeared from radar. The incident comes one week after a Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 298 people was shot down over Ukraine, and four months after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 237 people on board.

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Experts say the string of disasters and mysteries is understandably rattling nerves.

“They understand that it is a risk, but what they are doing is blowing it out of proportion,” Everly said, who stressed the risk of a crash was less than “one in a million.”

But despite its impressive safety record, air travel presents a “perfect storm of different fears,” according to Martin Seif, a psychologist at White Plain’s Hospital’s Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center.

“Fear of heights, social anxiety, claustrophobia,” Seif said. “You can go on and on and on.”

And when there’s a disaster, those fears are amplified, Seif said.

“You’ll get temporary increase whenever there’s a catastrophe,” he said.

For those who fear flying, experts say a few simple steps can help curb anxiety. To start, avoid dwelling on the media coverage, Seif said.

“There’s a general rule of thumb: read it once and don’t replay it,” he said, adding that avoiding the news altogether is no better than bingeing. “If you imagine what happened, you’re going to be worse than if you read it.”

But missing flights and unexplained crashes can add another layer of anxiety for wary air travelers, according to Everly.

“If they have to fly, they want as much knowledge of possible so they can build a safety net or defense,” he said, explaining that some nervous fliers might choose to avoid routes involved in the disasters.

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