When air travel first became accessible to the public in the early twentieth century, traveling by air was seen as an extravagance; it was fabulous and thrilling. Before this it had taken days to travel further than a couple of hundred miles, so travellers loved the speed and convenience it offered.
However, the positive air travel attitude has diminished and been substituted by nervousness due to growing prices, aircraft discomfort and, most significantly, increased airport security.
For a few it’s actually far worse. It’s estimated that in between 10-15% of individuals have experienced a flying phobia. Symptoms of this severe dysfunction often include elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, excessive sweating and migraines. The severity of these signs and symptoms might be further aggravated as a result of other anxieties including fear of crowds and fear of being trapped.
But the distress doesn’t end after they get off the plane. Even if they go for many years without taking a flight, there’s the nagging risk that they could be forced to take a flight at some point in the future for work or, perhaps, some other unavoidable commitment.
Where does this fear come form? Don’t they know flying is the safest method of travel on the planet. Obviously they know. But it doesn’t matter how many times flying phobia sufferers hear the facts and statistics, it won’t have any effect. I’m only mentioning it now is because it raises a fundamental question:
If Flying Really Is So Safe, Why Do Some People Have This Affliction?
To answer this we will need to look closely at the human brain, which is exquisitely adapted to respond to threats. Faced with a choice of a precipice or a hungry predator, your mind knows precisely how to make the distinction between the certainty of being eaten, and a likelihood of survival.
The problem arises if the person hasn’t learned how to process the details available in an effective way. This was what happened during the period right after the terrible events of 11th September 2001. The only information readily available came through the frenzied media coverage, and politicians, trying to make a case for suspect policies.
The repercussions of a country being plunged into panic ended up being catastrophic. The resulting national boycotting of the flight schedules around the country brought on an approximated reduction in excess of $80 billion to the US financial system. This figure dwarfs the $25 billion of destruction that was directly inflicted upon the US on 11th September.
The decision by so many men and women not to take a flight is, obviously, completely understandable given the horrific scenes viewed by the world. In truth, it is so easy to understand, it’s quite amazing that some people carried on flying. If you think about it, this is one of the biggest scientific control groups that’s ever been available. Their decision to continue to fly was a well thought out one as it turns out.
According to researchers at Cornell University, in the 3 months immediately following the terrorist attacks, there was an increase of 725 deaths on the roads in the USA than throughout the corresponding period 12 months earlier. This is because a lot more people travelled by car rather than using an airplane. Further study by Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute estimates the quantity to be even higher – 1,018 extra road fatalities when compared with figures from previous years.
And it didn’t end there; the impact lasted for virtually two years before returning to normal. During the year following the terrorist attacks there ended up being approximately 2500 extra fatalities on the roads that would not have occurred if people had continued to fly. More importantly…
There Wasn’t a Single Death as a Result of Commercial Flying In The USA In The Course of This Period.
The worry about the terrorism risk associated with air travel was misplaced. Air travel was, in reality, less risky than travellers thought; and considerably more safe travelling by car. In hindsight, nobody made themselves safer by not flying, and for some, tragically, the decision to drive was fatal.
So why did individuals that carried on flying choose to do so? It’s actually simple. The key is in how they calculated the risk from the information available, and the result was a far more correct assessment of the threat. So when they thought about traveling by air in the future, it just seemed like an uneventful experience
Here’s what I mean. If you think about anything, there is a very distinct neurological structure and sequence that your brain needs to use if you’re going to feel scared. And if the sequence and structure it uses is different, you will feel differently about it. So whilst they were initially just as sickened as everyone else by the terrorist attacks of 11th September, they didn’t allow the media and politicians to “hypnotise” them with the “disaster movie” prophesy of the coming months and years.
They realised that just because the attacks took place, there was no evidence that they would continue to happen in the future. If anything, the chances of it taking place again were even less. So when they thought about flying in the future, it just seemed like a pretty ordinary, even boring, experience.
The lesson to be learnt is clear. It is simply not enough to try to educate fearful flyers that air travel is safe. It’s also silly (as well as pointless) to expect them to “face their fears”. The inclination of politicians, and also the media, to exaggerate problems is not going to change. Instead, we must teach people how to use their brain to process the information in the same way as the people that continued travelling by airplane
The real key is in helping them learn techniques to modify the neurological structure and process the brain must use to experience fear and worry. Then the phobia will collapse; and collapse rapidly.