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Fear of Flying and how Air Traffic Control helps these folks overcome their phobia

Air Traffic Control and fear of flying? Huh!! What has one got to do with another?

Air Traffic Control and fear of flying? Huh!! What has one got to do with another? Read on.
Aviophobia (fear of flying) is a significant problem cutting across all cultures and socio-demographics. Indeed, a 1980 study by Boeing reported that some 18% of the population was afraid to fly and 13% experienced anxiety during a flight. A decade later, a Newsweek poll (1999) found that nearly one half of all adults who flew on commercial airlines were frightened at least sometimes. Although commercial aviation has become financially accessible to most of the US population, fear of flying continues to be a problem affecting a large number of passengers so much so that it was the subject of a recent report in the Wall Street Journal (June 2011). The extent of the problem is best illustrated by 50,000 folks “graduated” from the British Airways program (Aviatours) since its inception some 25 years back.
This heightened anxiety experienced by the phobic passenger is despite the fact that commercial aviation has become extremely safe in industrialized countries being some 22 times safer than car travel on a mile-to-mile comparison. Moreover, there were no fatalities on US carriers in 3 out of 4 years (2007-2010) (USA Today 1/24/2010). In fact, one Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) even ventured to say that “in the entire first world (developed nations) fatal crashes are at the brink of extinction.”
Alas, these impressive statistics alone do little for the nervous passenger. How then are people with this phobia cured? Towards this end, several fear of flying programs exist in the United States. Typically these are staffed by mental health professionals (psychologists) sometimes with the participation of pilot(s). Anxiety feeds off ignorance and some programs include presenters from Air Traffic Control and Maintenance the intent being to de-mystify various aspects of aviation.
The Houston program goes a step further by actually visiting an Air Traffic Control facility: either the Terminal Radar and Approach (TRACON) or the Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). The former facility is responsible for the separation and sequencing of aircraft on Instrument Flight Rules flights (which include all airline flights) arriving and departing the Houston metropolitan area while the latter separate enroute aircraft over much of Texas and part of Louisiana. The nail-biting passenger visiting these facilities sees first hand how aircraft are separated both vertically and horizontally from other aircraft.
Equally important, the nervous passenger learns that Air Traffic Control assists the pilot in a multitude of other ways as well. Here are but a few examples. When trouble brews, whether it be in the form of unexpected weather, or a malfunction, requiring an unexpected diversion the highly-trained folks at Air Traffic Control provides the pilot with a wealth of information on the weather, nearest airport, runway lengths and so on. Alternatively, the assistance may be more related to helping the pilot avoid turbulence a common concern for folks with a fear of flying. Although Air Traffic Control cannot “see” turbulence on their radar screens, the controller can query the aircraft ahead for a “ride report” (i.e. the presence of turbulence and if so the severity) information that is then relayed back to following aircraft. The pilot of the following aircraft can then request a lower or higher altitude from Air Traffic Control to avoid the turbulence.
In sum, fear of flying continues unabated amongst the general public despite the increased access of commercial travel to the general public in the last 2 decades as well as improved safety. Helping the phobic passenger overcome his/her fear of flying requires multiple approaches. One invaluable step in this direction is exposure to, and interaction with, some of the folks who make this mode of transportation so safe. Seeing first hand how the dedicated, well-trained men/women in Air Traffic Control facilities keep the skies safe is invaluable to helping the nervous flier overcome his/her aviophobia.

Fear of Flying Programs across the USA

Baltimore, MD – Stephnie Thomas, MS, NCC, LCPC
Chicago,IL – David Carbonell Ph.D. – Anxiety Coach
Houston, TX – Flying Phobia Help
Los Angeles, CA – Fear of Flying Cure
White Plains, NY – White Plains Hospital Center
San Francisco, CA – Fear of Flying Clinic
St. Paul, MN – My Sky Program
Tukwila, WA – Fear of Flying Clinic
About the Author:
Douglas Boyd was born in the sunny Caribbean (St. Kitts) and left for the United Kingdom for high school and university education earning his doctorate in 1985. Douglas then crossed the Atlantic to a sunnier, warmer Houston, Texas whereupon he took up flying in 1998 earning his private pilot, instrument and commercial ratings. Douglas is passionate about aviation and is an FAA Safety Team Representative and, in this capacity, educates pilots in the Houston area on all aspects of aviation safety. Douglas also serves on the Aerospace Medical Association Safety Committee. Dr. Boyd’s recent labor-of-love is his “fear of flying” workshop/clinic in Houston in which he incorporates a visit to Air Traffic Control.

One Response


The only thing I think of that air traffic control can help to pacify the passenger is by updating the latest news on any incident or weather changes. People should get well prepared or at least well informed of the upcoming situation and would not feel panic when handling it.

About Wayne Farley

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