Avoiding Air Travel Anxiety
As you board an aircraft, do you ever wonder if the flight you are about to take is going to be your last? I’ll be honest, the thought has crossed my mind. There are plenty of leisure passengers and even some business travelers whose fear of flying is very real and can cause a great deal of anguish. With the prevalence of modern air travel and our dependence on it, those fears have become less widespread, but they are no less legitimate for those who experience them.
Even though you don’t have any control of what happens to the aircraft you happen to be flying in, you do have control over your thoughts and emotions. It comes down to a trust in something greater than ourselves. When we plan a trip and pay our money to the airline, we’re trusting that the airline has put our best interests in the forefront of its business plan. We know that this is overwhelmingly true, otherwise the industry would have many more accidents. Statistically speaking, modern air travel is the safest method of rapid mass transit in the history of transportation.
Even so, everyone experiences some level of fear associated with flying at one time or another. I have been flying for more than 28 years now and still occasionally have moments of concern. I think most of us are more comfortable classifying our fear as anxiety. True fear might be justified if the plane experiences multiple system malfunctions while the captain attempts to make an emergency landing in foggy conditions. But if you’re flying in a perfectly good aircraft with all systems operating normally and you start to worry about what might happen, that counts as anxiety.
When asked about why they fear flying, most people cite the lack of control they feel when riding in the back of an airliner—then add fear of turbulence, heights, enclosed spaces and not understanding all of the curious noises and movements going on around them. Despite the air-transit safety record, we all suffer from the effects of occasional irrational anxiety. A Department of Transportation statistic reports that flying is almost 30 times safer than driving. Does this mean that people are generally 30 times more afraid to drive in a car than to fly in a plane? You know the answer to that.
So how can we overcome these very real feelings? Take a moment to consider the tens of thousands of flights that take off and land safely every day around the world. Look at the training that professional pilots undergo to earn our initial qualifications, as well as the ongoing training we undergo to maintain proficiency. Think about the outstanding design and manufacture of today’s aircraft and how meticulously maintained they are. Ponder the level of training our professional air traffic controllers acquire and how competently they do their jobs.
There may never be a fail-safe method of expeditious mass transit. Still, you can rest assured that today’s already exemplary aviation safety record continues to improve as a result of the dedicated professionals who have invested greatly in its success. After all, if I do my job and land the aircraft safely and walk off to spend time with my loved ones, then you do, too.
On your mind
Readers pose questions on air travel
I recently received a question from a reader who felt nervous when she noticed that the jet she was about to board seemed old and antiquated. She asked if pilots ever have the same reaction when they enter the cockpit of older aircraft.
I think all pilots enjoy flying new equipment. I distinctly remember flying new F/A-18s delivered from the factory in my days as an instructor for the military. The cockpits had that wonderful “new car” smell, and every component operated smoothly and correctly. Over time, parts of the aircraft would start to wear and get loose or fail due to overuse. The items that showed the most wear were replaced and, while not the same as when they were brand-new, the jets flew similarly. Airplanes handle differently due to airframe warp and bending from hard landings and rough handling. But this is not to say that they are unsafe—on the contrary, the older a jet is, the more likely it has proven that it is airworthy and will continue to be so until it is retired. Most aircraft have a definite service life and must be retired after reaching a certain number of cycles (takeoffs and landings). So as long as all of a jet’s systems and components operate as required, most pilots don’t give its age a second thought.
This same reader also asked if all cockpits look the same. Aircraft instruments are generally in the same location on most jets, but there are small differences between models, depending on which manufacturer built the jet. For instance, Airbus is famous for building airliners that use side-stick controllers versus the standard yoke. The side stick became the norm with the advent of the fly-by- wire concept, where movements of the stick were transmitted electronically through flight control computers to motors attached directly to the control surfaces. In older aircraft, such as 737s, the yoke assisted in using leverage to position control surfaces via pulleys and cables. There are also aircraft that combine fly-by-wire technology with the yoke, such as Boeing 747-400s and 777s. Why don’t they incorporate the newer technology and use side sticks? Because old habits die hard, and the decision to accept variances tends to fall to the people who most resist change.
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