The captain announces the plane is about to take-off, and like clockwork, a rush of anxiety sets in. Tiny beads of sweat appear on your brow as the overhead seatbelt sign goes on. The excited chatter of fellow passengers fades to a blur, as the powerful sound of the engines whirring for take-off overwhelms your ears.
You start to hyperventilate, trying desperately to gain control of your racing heartbeat. And as the plane spears into the air with a massive surge, you clutch the edge of your armrest until your knuckles turn pale . . .
According to various studies, one in four people experience some level of anxiety when flying, while one in 10 (or approximately 5,3 million South Africans) suffer from an extreme fear of flying, otherwise known as aerophobia.
Air travel is a necessity for business people, entrepreneurs and professionals alike, and one simply cannot afford to remain grounded, missing out on business opportunities because you can’t bring yourself to fly.
And even if you don’t suffer from an extreme fear of flying, even mild anxiety can elevate your stress levels enough to make the overall experience a nightmare.
For the last three decades, British Airways has presented a Flying with Confidence course for nervous flyers, and now the carrier is bringing it to South Africa.
Captain Allright — and no, his name is not a clever moniker — who is a senior British Airways training captain with over 12 000 flying hours, says there isn’t a magic formula to cure a fear of flying. Rather Flying with Confidence provides nervous flyers with information and understanding about the issues causing their anxiety.
The clunk of the landing gear or the noise and vibration when the flaps are retracted or deployed are all perfectly normal, but can trigger anxiety
The course has been running for 28 years in the UK, and of the 45 000 nervous flyers who have attended, 98% have gone on to fly without fear.
According to Allright, there are three main areas that cause people to fear flying: lack of control, lack of familiarity and the fear of turbulence.
“Flying by its very nature is abnormal to humans. We’ve spent 40 000 years with our feet firmly on the ground and our balance system is designed and has evolved with your feet firmly on the ground. And when you’re in the air, that balance is suddenly taken away,” he explains.
Surprisingly, over-familiarity is another common cause. “This aspect of fear is based around noise. So you have your regular business traveller who’s been flying for 20 years who suddenly hears a noise that he’s not familiar with and becomes anxious.”
Allright explains that to address those particular fears is to encourage flyers to accept that airplanes — even within the same fleet — make different noises, and to trust the pilot. “We explain to flyers that unless they hear otherwise from the Captain, every noise is normal.
“We also encourage them not to sit there and suffer in silence, but rather to ask the flight stewards about the noise.”
The course is divided into three aspects: a technical explanation of flying, addressing the psychology of fear, and taking an actual flight.
The South African course is a ground-only course, without the 45-minute flight at the end. However, this final aspect of the course may be added in 2015 depending on demand.
“The first aspect of the course examines the technical side of flying,” explains Allright. “The clunk of the landing gear or the noise and vibration when the flaps are retracted or deployed are all perfectly normal, but can trigger anxiety. It really is a case of empowering through knowledge, because if people know what is happening and why, they feel more in control.
“We also teach theory of flying: how it is that that tons of metal are able to get into air and stay there for two hours. We also talk about pilot selection and training, to address the lack of control issue, which is a big factor in flying anxiety. We also talk about how the aircraft is controlled, as well as everyone’s favourite, turbulence, in great detail because 99% of nervous flyers don’t like turbulence.