An Airline Course Looks to Overcome Fear in the Skies

No sooner had British Airways Flight 9240 roared into the air over Heathrow Airport than the cabin air was pierced by a sharp, scary noise, like an alarm or a siren. The power surged and then seemed to falter, and the plane became worryingly quiet. (Too quiet?)

What was it? Images of catastrophic scenarios — birds, engine failure, parts falling off, total systemic breakdown — pinballed through the passengers’ imaginations as the plane seemed to struggle to find its equilibrium. Unease gripped the cabin. But then a disembodied voice wafted soothingly over the public-address system. “Everything’s normal,” the voice said. “The plane is fine.”

This emotional roller coaster of a flight, a 35-minute loop in the air that started and finished at Heathrow, was the culmination of the airline’s “Flying With Confidence” course, aimed at people who are afraid to fly — the lightly nervous as well as the abjectly terrified.

The course includes a deep dive into the mechanics and operation of an airplane. There’s also a section on how pilots are trained to deal with various scenarios — including cabin depressurization, malfunctioning landing gear, holes in the fuselage and sudden gusts of wind on the runway that force what is called a “go-around” — when a pilot suddenly aborts the landing and sends the plane barreling straight back into the sky. The day ends when the attendees — or at least those who didn’t leave early — board an actual plane for a real-life flight.

As many as 40 percent of all airline passengers have at least mild apprehension about flying, experts say, and people with serious aviophobia fall roughly into two groups. About 20 percent have “an underlying anxiety that manifests as fear of flying,” said Douglas Boyd, an aviation researcher who runs a fear-of-flying course in Houston. Another 70 to 75 percent, he said, “think that something bad will happen to the plane — there will be a fire, the engine will fall off, the pilot is drunk, it’s going to crash.” (The rest have a hybrid of worries.)

Flying is objectively low-risk, and 2023 was the safest year for jet travel ever, according to the International Air Transport Association. But fear of flying hardly seems irrational, what with reports of aircraft malfunctions, overworked air traffic controllers and the sense that climate change is making turbulence worse.

For instance: On Jan. 5, a door plug — a door-sized panel on the side of an aircraft — blew off the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines jet as it made its ascent, depressurizing the cabin and exposing passengers to open air thousands of feet above ground. Also in January, five members of the Japanese Coast Guard were killed when their plane collided with a Japanese Airlines jet on a Tokyo runway and both planes burst into flames. (Everyone — 367 passengers and 12 crew members — on the Japanese Airlines flight survived.) Boeing, the manufacturer of the Alaska Airlines plane and other planes that have experienced various mishaps, has faced particular criticism for neglecting safety.

Such incidents loom large in the heads of passengers, but Mr. Boyd said that people tend to ignore how rare they are. “You have to look at objective measurements,” he said. “In the last 15 years we’ve had only two fatal accidents with a U.S. carrier, and that speaks volumes.” (Those were when a Continental Airlines flight crashed into a house in Buffalo in 2009, killing 50 people, and when a window blew out after an engine exploded on a Southwest Airlines flight in 2018, killing a passenger who was partly sucked out of the plane.)

Nobody wants to go through a flight racked with fear or beset by emotional upheaval, and airlines have an obvious interest in calm, unterrified passengers. A number of airlines, including Air France, Lufthansa and Virgin, offer fear-of-flying programs, but B.A.’s has been operating for more than 35 years and is considered the most well-established.

I — an occasionally nervous-in-turbulence but not prohibitively terrified flyer — joined an October session, paying the fee of 395 British pounds, or about $508.

My fellow attendees represented a spectrum of ages and professions and suffered from a range of anxieties.

Duncan Phillips, a high school science teacher, said that he had not set foot on a plane since his honeymoon, two decades earlier. Imogen Corrigan, a medieval history lecturer, said that she had a “generalized dread of the whole airport experience,” exacerbated by a traumatic flight some years earlier in which her seatmate, incorrectly interpreting the plane’s post-takeoff noises as systemic engine failure, rose to her feet and yelled, “We’re not going up!”

And a 28-year-old man who asked that his name not be used because he works at Buckingham Palace said that his problem was claustrophobia — he once got trapped in an elevator — but that he was committed to overcoming it. “I just don’t want to be afraid anymore,” he said.

Standing onstage in a conference room at a hotel at Heathrow and using props like slides, a plastic plane and a replica of a human ear to explain how airplanes work, Capt. Steve Allright, the B.A. pilot who led the program, provided his go-to anti-anxiety tip.

“I want you to breathe out for four seconds and then breathe in, while squeezing your largest muscles — your buttocks,” he said. “What you’re doing is taking control of your mind and your racing thoughts. Don’t sit and suffer. Breathe and squeeze.”

(Yes, Captain Allright has seen the film “Airplane!” in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Peter Graves play two pilots whose names — Roger Murdock and Clarence Oveur — lead to “Who’s on First”-style amusement when their colleagues bark “Roger, Roger!” and “Over, Oveur!” at them. Captain Allright knows that his name, too, sounds fictional. It is not.)

He invited the group to identify its specific worries. “How many of you have not flown for more than 20 years, or never flown?” he asked. “How many are regular business travelers, and it’s getting worse? Mums and dads who had children and it suddenly made them aware of their own mortality?”

He peered into the crowd. “Who doesn’t like the takeoff?” he added. “Who doesn’t like the landing and — everyone’s favorite — who doesn’t like the turbulence?”

One person raised her hand for all the categories.

Among the points made by Captain Allright and his team:

  • The wings of planes can’t just snap off.

  • The plane has sufficient stores of fuel and will not suddenly run out of gas. “Those Hollywood scenes where they’re circling around yelling that they’re going to run out of fuel and the plane is going to ‘land on fumes,’” Captain Allright said, “that’s not going to happen.”

  • The thing that sounds like the engines have suddenly ceased functioning after takeoff? It’s an auditory illusion created by the reduction in power after the plane becomes airborne; the plane needs more power to take off and less power when it gets into the air.

  • Those movies in which pilots are “wrestling with the controls and sweating profusely during turbulence” are totally fake, Captain Allright said. “Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous.”

  • When you hear a strange beeping noise in the cabin, it is not a secret pilots’ signal meaning that “we have an emergency, but don’t tell the passengers.” In fact, “all airplanes make different noises,” Captain Allright said, and what you’re hearing could well be something like the “barking dog noise” that people say they hear on some Airbus jets, attributable to the planes’ hydraulics.

  • No pilot would ever unlock the cockpit door and let in a bunch of hijackers, even if the hijackers were threatening to kill the flight attendant with whom the pilot was having an affair, as in the TV series “Hijack,” starring Idris Elba.

The presentation seemed to allay some of the passengers’ fears. Charlotte Wheeler, an agricultural company executive still spooked by a childhood in which her acutely phobic mother would drink to excess and become obstreperous and hysterical on flights, said she appreciated Captain Allright’s willingness to journey through the weeds of her apprehension.

“That whole ‘wings not snapping off’ thing was amazing,” she said. “And I appreciated what he said about the fuel not running out.”

Ms. Corrigan, the lecturer, said she was particularly soothed by Captain Allright’s discussion of “the bit where they’ve just taken off and you don’t think it’s going to make it.”

The hard-news presentation was followed by a segment on fear, anxiety reduction and relaxation led by a psychologist, Dr. Jan Smith. But, eventually, it was time to get on the plane, minus several unnerved people who left during the lunch break and never came back. Divided into small groups, each led by a B.A. employee in a high-visibility orange vest, the remaining passengers moved tentatively through the airport terminal. The boarding passes listed the destination as “Fictitious Point,” because the plane was both departing from and returning to Heathrow.

There was a brief setback. The first passengers boarded, only to find that they had to get off because an unspecified glitch had failed to register their existence when they scanned their boarding passes.

“This is not good,” one passenger said.

“Is this part of the course?” said another. “I have a fear of stampedes.”

Several people fretted by the door and failed to board the plane. One woman successfully got on but quickly got off, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Everyone else took their seats: 120 customers intermingled with about 20 B.A. personnel, pilots and psychologists whose job was to provide emotional and occasionally physical support at this most delicate part of the day. People were hyperventilating, reciting inspirational mantras, folding into themselves and, in several cases, openly crying. A woman in the front row cranked up her headphones and tried to distract herself with the Lee Child thriller “No Plan B.”

“I really, really don’t like being up in the air,” she said.

The plane took off and the power surged on and then ratcheted down, as Captain Allright had explained. The collective anxiety level rose to 11. “Everything’s normal,” he said. “The speed is stable. The pilots are happy and relaxed. This would be a good time to do your breathing and squeezing.”

The plane flew around for a bit as he talked through the sights and sounds — the Millennium Dome, Gatwick Airport, the London Eye, the wing flaps, a little chirping noise signifying that autopilot had been switched off.

“That means that Nigel’s now controlling the aircraft manually,” Captain Allright said, referring to the pilot, Capt. Nigel Willing, who was at the controls and who, yes, has another name that sounds like he’s a character in a movie. “It’s perfectly normal. Let’s all make a conscious decision to squeeze our buttocks.”

As the plane began its descent, some of the passengers, genuinely amazed that they had made it this far, took proof-of-flight photos out the window.

“I’m just glad I didn’t throw up,” the “No Plan B” reader said. “I could really use a cigarette.”

The plane came to a stop and Idris Guest, an IT worker who had not been in the air since a horrific 2016 experience involving turbulence and a flight attendant with a bleeding head wound, pronounced himself if not cured, then at least not in a fetal position.

He vowed to fly again. “I’m on a massive high,” he said.

“Everything’s normal,” Captain Allright said. “Give yourself a round of applause, people.”

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Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.

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