Fear of Flying

The plane truth: Top executive has control issues over fear of flying — and she's not alone

The plane truth: Top executive has control issues over fear of flying

Austin photo: News_Europe Flight_Map
Fear of flying has little to do with logic or reason. It encompasses fear of heights, closed-in places, crashing and fear of death; and perhaps one of the biggest fears for us Type A's — loss of control. Courtesy photo

It is time to confess my dark secret. I am deathly afraid of flying. It is not something I’m proud of and not something I share readily. When I do, I always get the same response: “How could you be afraid of flying, with all the miles you fly every year?”

It’s true. I have flown three million miles in the last 30 years for my job. I, too, wonder how someone who loves her work and visiting new places as much as I do can fear the act of getting there.

 Fear of flying has little to do with logic or reason. 

I am not alone. According to numerous sources, one person in three is afraid of flying.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders says fear of flying is “estimated to affect 25 million adults in the United States and nearly 10–40 percent of the adults in industrialized countries.” A 2007 New York Times report quotes a National Institute of Health estimate that about 6.5 percent of Americans fear flying so intensely that it qualifies as a phobia or anxiety disorder. Aviophobia (fear of flying) is one of the most common phobias  following the fear of public speaking and spiders.

So many people are so afraid of flying that they avoid it at all costs. Fans of rock band, Fleetwood Mac, will remember that band member Christine McVie dropped out of the band in the early 2000s, in part because she was afraid of flying. Other famous people who have publicly discussed their fear of flying include Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston and Whoopi Goldberg.

Loss of control

Fear of flying has little to do with logic or reason. I doubt that there is anyone with this phobia who doesn’t understand that flying is the safest form of transportation. Fear of flying is more complex than it would appear because it encompasses fear of heights, closed-in places (claustrophobia), crashing and fear of death; and perhaps one of the biggest fears for us Type A's —loss of control.

You don’t read much about executives who are afraid of flying, in part because it can’t be good for their career. My guess is executives may be even more prone to fear of flying because they are used to being in control. With flying they are not in control of the pilots, air traffic control, the plane, mechanics or really, anything.      

 For me, the toughest part of flying is the take off.

I remember my first flight as a 17-year-old traveling from Birmingham to Memphis. Although only a 40-minute flight, the minute the wheels left the ground my heart started pounding, my palms started sweating and I had the overwhelming feeling of being trapped.

I assumed that fear of flying would magically disappear once I flew more. Sadly, this was not the case, as I flew frequently, first as a lawyer and later as an executive search consultant, the latter sometimes calling for weekly trips.

For me, the toughest part of flying is the take-off. I’m acutely aware of leaving the ground, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. If I am taking off from a city with mountains, I’m worried about turbulence; or worse, that we won’t clear the mountains. There is a misfiring in my brain that tells me I am in danger—that I am dying.

Specific fears

Over the years, while the general fear of flying has remained constant, from time to time specific fears pop up. When airlines banned smoking, I vigilantly watched the restroom for signs of people staying too long in the restroom, smoking cigarettes, and dumping their smoldering butts in the toilet, which I imagined had flammable chemicals. When passengers loitered by the exit door, I worried that they might accidently open it. When planes made sharp banks, I instinctively leaned the other way as if my leaning could help the plane maintain balance.

I flew one of the first flights to Europe after 9/11, and I imagined that every person on the flight was a potential hijacker. I sat up all night casing the passengers.

Despite my phobia, I keep flying. I love my work, my clients and my life. I can compartmentalize my fear so that I usually don’t worry about it before hand or once the plane lands. In thirty years, I have only bailed on a flight once—well, maybe a few times.

 I immediately jumped out of my seat and dragged her off the plane, thinking she had a premonition of a crash.  

In the 1990s I was scheduled to fly to Jackson, Mississippi, on a prop plane and there were tornadoes in the area. I got to the airport, had a panic attack and didn’t get on the plane. I called the client and sheepishly admitted my secret. He confided that he, too, was nervous flier and to wait until the storms cleared.

That same year, my business partner and I flew to St. Louis for a day trip and were heading back to Houston where storms raged. As we took our seats she said, “I have a bad feeling about this flight,” meaning that it might be a long night.

I immediately jumped out of my seat and dragged her off the plane, thinking she had a premonition of a crash. We spent the night at a nearby hotel with no clothes or toiletries. Although I felt a bit silly, I felt better learning the flight we bailed on could not land and the airline bused passengers to Houston from Lafayette in the middle of the night.

Another time my intuition failed me. As a colleague and I took off from Birmingham, I looked at the radar—one of my obsessive pre-flight rituals—and remarked, “There’s no way we will be able to land in Houston,” despite the pilot’s assurance that the storms would clear by the time we landed. The storms didn’t clear (as I knew they wouldn’t), and after an extremely bumpy flight we landed in San Antonio (along with 30 other diverted planes).

I feared it would be an awful flight once we were cleared to Houston — in my mind I could see the headlines of “Plane crashes en route to Houston,” so my colleague and I disembarked and rented the only car left at the airport (a huge red truck). Sure enough, as we pulled out of the rental lot at midnight, our plane flew overhead and arrived in Houston three hours before we did.

False alarms

I have only had a few objectively scary incidents over the years. A couple of times we weren’t sure the landing gear would lock, and one time an indicator light showed an engine fire and we were met by fire engines. All false alarms, but none of that made the fear less or it easier for me to get on the next plane. And of course, I have experienced turbulence—while normal and not dangerous—which led me to hyperventilating and clinging to my seat mate for dear life.

My most disturbing incident happened on a wintry Friday night in December (never a good time to fly), from Newark to Houston. I was seated in the back row of a DC-10 facing the flight attendants, as the pilot announced we were number three for take-off. With that, two Middle Eastern looking men jumped up from their seats and started heading to the cockpit.

The flight attendant calmly called the pilot and said “Captain, two men heading to the cockpit.” The Captain announced on the public address:  “We are heading back to the gate.”

Terrorism? Hardly. Two non-English speaking men from Morocco thought that because we were number three for take-off that they had time to go to the bathroom, and were going to do so.

So, what does one do about fear of flying? Pardon the pun, but I’m going to leave you up in the air until my next column, when I will share my attempts to rise above my fear.

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Jane Howze is co-founder and managing partner of The Alexander Group.