February 21, 2017

Adult Onset Flight Anxiety – No One Is Immune

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Written by: Anson Harris
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Seated in 8A of a Boeing 737-800, I’m briefly convinced that we’re all about to die. We’re descending into Las Vegas via the TYSSN4 arrival and, suddenly, we are in what I perceive to be a G forces and it is making me queasy. Connected to the onboard WiFi, I send a text to my wife telling her (half-jokingly) that I’m pretty sure my death is imminent. Moments later, we level off and all is good. WE LIVED!

Of course, that was never actually in question. For that brief moment though, I was genuinely terrified. In reality, we descended at about 4000 feet per minute for what was likely a crossing restriction or a late ATC request for traffic. Yet, the kind of hyperbole that usually gives fellow aviation industry professionals and AvGeeks a little chuckle is what raced through my mind. These are often the ramblings of a passenger who flies once every couple of years and doesn’t understand the inner workings of aviation and airline operations. Alas, despite working in airline operations control for more than a decade, having a reasonable level of “aviation expertise”, and having flown on hundreds of segments, these were my thoughts on that flight to Vegas. For the first time in my life, I was scared of flying.

A few weeks later, on a flight from Texas to South America, I encountered the same anxiety. It happened again on my flight home. I scratched my plans to visit England later in the week for a (real) football match and decided to stay home for days, holed up on the couch, instead of taking advantage of the seasonally-low load factors across the system that are the catalyst for bidding my vacation time in February instead of spring/summer like most people. This was crippling enough that, for the first time in my career, I chose the couch over an open seat.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved flying. The idea of flight benefits is what initially drew me into this silly business and, until I got married, I spent almost every set of days off just flying from airport to airport…sometimes never leaving those airports…just to be in the air. The cabin of an airliner has long been my “happy place”. It’s been where I read books, catch up on podcasts, listen to new music, or just disconnect from the world.

Not understanding where this sudden anxiety manifested from, I began asking industry friends if any of them had experienced anything similar. I was surprised to learn I wasn’t alone.

One friend, an operations control colleague at another airline, told me of his sudden fear of turbulence that developed seemingly out of nowhere a few years ago. At one point, he was choosing circuitous routes to get to his destinations based on that morning’s turbulence forecasts. Eventually, he saw his doctor and was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication and, over a relatively short time, he was able to fly without the medication.

Another industry friend told me that, while he doesn’t fear flying, he finds himself much more attuned to the goings-on as he flies across the country for work now that he has “more to lose” than he did before he had a family.

Finally, I had a chat with an airline pilot friend about my recently developed fears. He asked if I experienced the same anxieties when I ride in the flight deck jumpseat. After some brief thought, I realized that I don’t. Even though I have no more real control over my fate as a jumpseater than I do as a regular passenger, being able to see & hear the reasons for certain in-flight events dissolves any anxieties I may have. Thus, it’s not a fear of flying; it’s an uneasiness with the perceived loss of control over my circumstances.

With this in mind, I forced myself off of the couch and onto a company flight with the most open seats. I’m still not totally over my anxiety, but I’m working on it.

Image by Robert Couse-Baker [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Anson Harris



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  • JonfromBklyn

    Welcome to my world. I like traveling too much to stop flying, but often swear that the current flight will definitely be my last. Once I land and find myself in a wonderful place, all that misery is quickly forgotten. Only to boot up again the next time I head for the airport.

  • kgbme

    “[..] a passenger who flies once every couple of years and doesn’t understand the inner workings of aviation and airline operations.”

    Oh, I think that everyone understands – quite clearly – that every second on-board an airplane (moving, or stationary) can very well be your last.

    There are countless thousands of things that can go wrong about any flight and often do (ask a pilot), only not all end with catastrophic results thankfully. Being freaked out on an airplane is -just- natural. xD