COVID-19 and Fear of Flying: An Anxiety Daily Double

Depending on which study you read, one-third to nearly one-half of Americans have some fear of flying. Whether it’s turbulence, unusual sounds, or claustrophobia, fear of flying is one of the most common phobias, second only to fear of public speaking.

And in March 2020, we added a new phobia to our repertoire. Survey data from YouGov shows that the majority of American adults fear contracting Covid-19 to some degree, from “very” to “somewhat.”

Now, after a year of being isolated from family and friends, we’re starting to tentatively emerge from our homes, like the munchkins when meeting Dorothy. And many of us are thinking about travel, whether to see family, fulfill a bucket-list entry, or just see something other than our four walls.

But what about the fearful flyer? Has COVID-19 made fear of flying worse? Has it doubled down on anxiety or has it superseded fear of flying such that those formerly afraid to fly are putting aside their concerns just to get out? And what about those with flight phobia who think, “I’ve lived this long without it. Why risk it now?”

I asked Captain Tom Bunn, LCSW, a retired airline pilot and licensed therapist who has specialized in the treatment of fear of flying for over thirty years, to share his observations about how COVID-19 has affected the fear of flying. Since 1982, Capt. Tom’s company SOAR, Inc. has helped more than 14,000 clients control fear, panic, and claustrophobia. For more information about his bestselling book SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, and app for iOS and Android, please see the end of this article.

NYD: How has COVID-19 changed anxiety levels for fliers, and what should they know?

Capt. Tom: It has been a bit of a journey. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of anxious fliers felt relieved. They had a valid reason to avoid flying with no feelings of shame. But as the pandemic dragged on, fearful fliers were saying they wanted the pandemic to be over so they could travel, even if it meant taking a plane.

As to this kind of change, a client said before the pandemic her fear of flying was unjustified. Then, during the pandemic, there was good reason to be afraid to fly. She was aware of both positions. The two things were in her mind at once: her justified fear of being on a plane during the pandemic, and her unjustified fear before the pandemic. Somehow, when she thought of the pandemic being over, and thus her justified fear being over, she had trouble continuing to be afraid of her unjustified fear. She began to look forward to being able to fly again.

I don’t think flying during the pandemic is a good idea. There is no clear line as to what is safe and what isn’t. If a person really needs to fly, with good precautions they should be fine. But every exposure is worth avoiding unless necessary. It is not just being on the plane. There is getting to the airport, checking in, going through security, and boarding on the departure end. There is deplaning, getting to a hotel or other accommodations, and meeting with business people or family. Eating – obviously without wearing a mask – is going to be done in the presence of others who are not wearing a mask and whose COVID status is unknown. All in all, a trip is not just one exposure but a constellation of many exposures to people who have also had many recent exposures.

After vaccination, there is a lot of protection and that should make flying OK.

Another thing people are going to run into is this. After being at home for a year, just going out in public is going to trigger the amygdala. The amygdala is no longer used to what used to be routine. If a person lacks good ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, what you used to do routinely is going to cause anxiety – which will not make sense to them unless they understand the amygdala is regarding it as something they have never done.

NYD: Does having even more years in which to gather crashes in “your mental filing cabinet” make it even harder for the older adult to overcome fear of flying?

Capt. Tom: I think so. There doesn’t seem to be a “best used before” date on past crashes. There should be, because the problems that caused crashes years ago no longer exist. We are flying better planes, and they are being flown by better-trained pilots. Thus, there should be a cutoff date.

When would that date be? I think it should begin after all the first generation of jet airlines had been retired (707, DC-8, 727, A-300) The 747 produced a huge leap in engineering standards. The post-747 planes are much safer than the pre-747 planes. All the older planes were retired in the early 2000s. So, start with 2005 and consider the crashes since then. Also, because standards are different elsewhere, disregard crashes outside the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Europe. How many crashes does that leave us to fret over? Zero.

NYD: Is anxiety about flying different from generalized anxiety? Specific to flying? Is it treated much like any other anxiety disorder would be treated? If not, how is fear of flying treated differently?

Capt. Tom: All anxiety comes from the same source. When operating your car, you have the accelerator to go faster, and the brake to slow down. A person with anxiety is like a person who bought a Tesla that is supposed to drive itself, and someone forgot to service the brakes. It would accelerate just fine. But when it was time to slow down or stop, it wouldn’t be able to. Anxiety is like that. It is due to a lack of psychological programming to operate the system that is supposed to slow us down when stress hormones build up and get us going too fast.

NYD: How would you respond to the comment: “I’ve lived this long without flying, I don’t need to risk it now”?

Capt. Tom: What’s the risk? It’s less than driving to the supermarket. The risk is so low that if you stop doing your daily routine that involves some driving and you fly someplace instead, you have made yourself safer.

… if you stop doing your daily routine that involves some driving and you fly someplace instead, you have made yourself safer.

NYD: How can the SOAR Course help someone who experienced anxiety while flying years ago, and has not returned to it for many, many years?

Capt. Tom: One (of my clients) had a panic attack on a flight when she was a teenager. Finally, forty years later she did the SOAR Course. Now she has done about 60 flights. Sometimes the motivation turns out to be disgust that you are not able to do what others do. Sometimes it is a bucket list thing: not wanting to get any older without seeing the places you want to see.

Tom Bunn, L.C.S.W., is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist who has specialized in the treatment of fear of flying for over thirty years. He is the author of the bestselling book on flight phobia, “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. His company, SOAR, Inc., founded in 1982, has helped more than 14,000 clients control fear, panic, and claustrophobia.

I’m one of them!

Be sure to download the “SOAR Conquers Fear of Flying” app, free for iOS and Android that features:

  • a step-by-step “Basics” course that provides reassuring information about flying at all steps along the way, from “Getting Ready” to “At the Airport” to “In the Air” to “Landing” including relaxation exercises to soothe anticipatory anxiety
  • a G-force meter that you can use to prove that turbulence is safe and never approaches the plane’s limits
  • Live forecasts for turbulence potential around the world and storm position and height
  • in-app purchases including Capt. Tom’s “Take Me Along” to coach you through the flight

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