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May 2018


“I’ve never much liked flying,” admits businessman and NetJets Owner James Knight. “I know the fear is irrational. But, in a way, I know it’s not irrational, too. I don’t think we’re meant to fly.” Indeed, Knight can trace his discomfort with aviation right back to his teens and a spectacularly bumpy flight from Spain. “You know,” he says, “I don’t think anyone sits on a plane and absolutely loves it – except the pilots.”

It was to one such man, Richard Parkinson, NetJets’s Assistant Chief Pilot for their Gulfstream fleet, that Knight turned for help with his concerns. Parkinson, who was involved in the development of British Airways’s respected course for aviophobics, has now created a similar workshop for NetJets, offering helpful insight into aviation physiology and passenger psychology.

“Understanding how an aeroplane flies is important, and why it moves the way it does, as is grasping what turbulence is and its likely outcomes,” says Parkinson, who stresses the need to counter misconceptions. There are some commonly misunderstood aspects of flying, he explains, such as the flexing of the wings during a rough ride. Many phobics believe this isn’t meant to happen, whereas it is, in fact, essential that it does.

But mechanical understanding, he concedes, is only a small part of the process of coming to terms with the fear, and that’s even given the advantages that flying in a small jet brings: yes, it feels turbulence more acutely, but is also small enough and of high enough performance to usually avoid it altogether, with the flexibility to delay or turn back a flight if it really comes to it. “You can give people all the safety statistics you like and it means nothing,” says Knight, and indeed more people die falling out of bed than in air crashes. “The fact is that your flight might still be the one that has trouble.”
Quote Open"To overcome anxiety, understanding how an aeroplane flies is important, as is grasping what turbulence is"Quote Closed

Rather, Parkinson stresses, most sufferers find that what they are afraid of is less the flying, per se, as the experience of fear itself, and how this triggers the fight or flight mechanism – a constant bombardment of adrenaline that, over hours of flying time, does the sufferer no good at all. That fear often stems from a sense of a lack of control of the situation, “which might be a particular problem for NetJets Owners who are, in their work, often in positions of control,” notes Knight. “It’s worse on commercial flights, of course. It’s better with NetJets because you feel part of the whole process. Just being able to sit up with the pilots helps you feel so much better.”

Elaine Iljon Foreman, a clinical psychologist who’s been treating fear of flying for 40 years, explains that the sense of loss of control is twofold: not just fear of a loss of internal control – having a panic attack or worse – but not being able to do anything about the situation should external events give rise to a problem on a flight. “For most of us in most situations, on a boat, in a car, there’s a feeling that there’s at least something we could do, but that’s rarely the case on an aircraft,” she explains. “It’s a matter of perception and learning to live with uncertainty. That means not just dismissing your feelings as ridiculous, but engaging with them and understanding your own patterns: how you think, what you do that feeds the problem.”
Quote Open
"The fear of flying often stems from a sense of a lack of control of the situation. It’s a matter of perception and learning to live with uncertainty."
Elaine Iljon ForemanQuote Closed

Foreman advises that the nervous passenger recalls what makes flying worthwhile for them, keeps occupied during the flight and – following the methodologies of cognitive behavioural therapy – is prepared to, as it were, cross-examine their worries to conclude that they are without much foundation. Parkinson adds some further, practical advice: regulate and focus on your breathing. He also teaches one intriguing exercise that involves the clenching and releasing of one’s buttocks. He says to avoid drugs that address the symptoms rather than the cause and warns not to overdo it with the alcohol “because its effect is twice that at altitude than on the ground, and people tend to associate the resulting hangover with their flight experience,” he says.

But the big question is: does any of it work? “I certainly feel empowered by getting knowledge and exploring my concerns, and reassured by seeing just how fully in control the pilots are. Because without the confidence they can instil, the nice leather seats don’t much matter,” says Knight. “I think I’ve actually come full circle, through the fear and on to actually feeling excited about my next flight.”

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