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Flight MH 370 & The Fear Of Flying

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( March 23, 2014, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) The disappearance of Flight MH 370 brought to bear the need to examine many weak points in the current international civil aviation system. They ranged from the need to be more coordinated in checking passports against international databases to a compelling requirement to employ more vigilant tracking systems. However, one issue that has so far not been addressed is the "fear factor", which was a blatant corollary to the unfortunate loss of nearly 3000 lives as a result of the criminal acts of terrorists using aircraft as weapons of mass destruction on 11 September 2001. It will not be surprising that in response to the mystery surrounding Flight MH 370 a nagging fear of flying is once again germinated in the minds of those of us who fly frequently, and even in the mind of the cheerful tourist who boards a plane once in a while. Although we come across instances of aircraft crashes and hijackings every now and then, the mysteries that surround them at first are eventually solved, laying our minds to rest. With MH 370 the mystery still remains, making us wonder as to what may have happened. The innate human desire in us to solve the mystery in our own minds make us come up with all sorts of theories, adding to our fear and trepidation.

One of the lesser known facts about aviation is that even pilots could suffer from the fear of flying. At the Third World Conference on the Fear of Flying which was held from 4 to 6 June 2007 at the Headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, an exotic group of professionals ranging from aviation psychologists and airline pilots to aviation lawyers recognized that fear of flying is not only experienced by the passenger but sometimes by the technical and cabin crew as well. They also concluded that fear of flying may not per se be threatening to the safety of the aircraft unless dangerous acts flowed from it that could affect passengers and crew.

Although flying is generally considered to be one of the safest forms of transportation, one must be aware that this conclusion is arrived at through statistics, and statistics has little to do with the human mind. Fear of what might happen to one’s physical well being is based on the uncomfortable awareness that life is fragile and vulnerable, and that none of us has any real control over it, whether in the air or on the ground. The eclectic group of participants at the ICAO meeting also recognized that what is even more disturbing is that, in the air transport context, fear of flying is a specific phobia, not so much caused by a clear and present danger, but rather mostly caused by anxiety as to what might happen even under the most normal circumstances. The response to this anxiety could be a totally uncontrolled and irrational act that could jeopardize the safety of the aircraft and others on board.

A study by Lufthansa in 1998 revealed that 55 percent of passengers suffering from fear of flying are also afflicted with acrophobia (fear of heights), 46 percent with claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) and 4 percent with agoraphobia (fear of places with crowds). From the myth of Icarus (where the story demonstrates that it is foolish for a human to treat flying as an ability we are naturally endowed with) to modern times, fear of flying can be attributed to the fact that we were not designed to fly like birds, and therefore whenever we get into a “flying machine” we have to confront our deepest apprehensions of human vulnerability. It’s not so much that flying is “unnatural,” but that in finding ourselves way up in the sky, sealed in a machine, we can hear our deepest whisperings of fragility and exposure to danger more clearly than anywhere else. Anyone who flies—even someone not afraid of flying—understands that there is always some chance of an accident, just as with any life activity. However, we are also aware that relatively few accidents happen in aviation because pilots are specifically trained to stay calm and to think clearly in an emergency—and they are trained to handle just about every emergency imaginable.

Fear of flying is increasingly becoming a unique human factors issue. Some terms used in identifying fear of flying are “aerophobia”, “aviophobia” or “aeroneurosis”. The first step is to identify the symptoms of fear of flying. The word “Fear” comes from the old English “Faer” for sudden calamity or danger and was later used to describe the emotion of uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger. Fear is said to be a normal response to active or imagined threat in higher animals and comprises an outer behavioural expression, an inner feeling and accompanying physiological damage. Fear is also said to have been born of innumerable injuries in the course of evolution and has developed into a portentous foreshadowing of possible injury capable of arousing in the body all of the offensive and defensive activities that favour the survival of the organism.

Fear of flying has many facets, not all of which apply directly to flying itself. Some of these are: heights; enclosed spaces; crowded conditions; sitting in hot, stale air; being required to wait passively; not understanding the reasons for all the strange actions sounds and sensations occurring around; worrying about the dangers of turbulence; being dependant on an unknown pilot’s or mechanics judgment’; not feeling in control; and the possibility of terrorism.

Situations that would evoke fear are flight preparation (getting ready to leave, packing bags), pre-flight procedures (getting the boarding pass, clearing security). The air traveller could also be intimidated by the aviation environment, be it airport design, signage and announcements over the public address system. Take for instance the use of the words “terminal building”; “final call for boarding”; and “final destination”. These could be ominous to the person who is apprehensive about crossing the boundaries of his evolution. Separation from loved ones and friends at the terminal building and entry into the sterile area could also facilitate anxiety and the feeling of being alone in a foreign environment. It could even be worse inside the aircraft. Each time the aircraft door closes the fuselage becomes a veritable prison. Cabin crew, who are themselves not immune to the fear of flying, would then be facing a group of fifty to sixty percent of people who share a fear of flying. Some of them could be under medication and some could have a history of violence. In fact, all of them would have experienced stress in the checking in and boarding process. The passengers could well be an eclectic mix of perverts, pickpockets, priests, doctors, people harbouring strong discriminatory views against women and gays, and people from minority groups, people who are addicted to drinking and smoking, people with poor personal hygiene, and the list continues. There are people who are travelling on business, leisure, to attend a wedding or funeral, to immigrate to an unknown country, or even just to escape. Explaining the security procedures (including how to use an inflatable life jacket) to such a group of people would in itself be sufficient to cause a crew member some anxiety.

The takeoff could also be intimidating and the usual vibrations, engine noise and turbulent could add to anxiety. Pre landing instructions, including safety instructions could also cause apprehension leading to the final phase of landing and touch-down.

Passenger hostility is a symptom of a blend of emotions and fear of flying is one of them. Other common symptoms are the threat of losing control, fatigue and personal and environmental stress. This could lead to self-protection - in demanding alcohol, a particular seat or the right to smoke in the cabin. In the early days of flying, the role of the cabin crew was to alleviate passenger concerns by explaining the rules of aerodynamics, cloud formations and meteorology. They also acted as tour guides, particularly when the aircraft flew at low altitudes since large windows offered spectacular views that could alleviate fear.

It must clearly be established that fear of flying does not always result in air rage or criminal conduct on the part of the person fearful of flying. However, the fact that fear of flying has the potential to make a normally calm and law abiding person turn into an offender is real. Fear of flying could trigger abnormal and aggressive behaviour which, under normal circumstance would not surface. For instance, a person fearful of flying could react more aggressively than an otherwise calm passenger to intoxication; unsatisfactory seat assignments; carry-on baggage disputes; long waiting periods between flights, delays; missed connections; lost baggage, missing meals; and no meal choice just to name a few. The answer to passenger risk management lies in such instances squarely with cabin crew. From the boarding phase, which is crucial to the cabin crew, during which they have to provide information, water for medication, pillows, and blankets, crew members have to respond with grace and tact, but be firm with aggressive behaviour. There are no international requirements for the training of cabin crew who are the first point of contact with an aggressive passenger, be it just a pugilist or a terrorist who threatens the security of the entire aircraft.

Since one of the responses to the fear of flying has been identified as air rage, one might not be surprised to find that over the next few weeks or months to come, instances of air rage might increase in global air transport. Therefore, fear of flying brings to bear the pressing need to address issues of passenger risk management by States and air carriers, as well as measures that could be taken in instances of pre-flight rage and air rage. With regard to pre-flight rage the airline has the option of denying boarding to the aggressor.

Aviation psychology could play a useful role in providing assistance to those suffering from the fear of flying by offering fearful flyers’ programmes. These programmes apprise the sufferer of how airplanes work and teach behaviour modification techniques such as “thought stopping” and relaxation exercises. Additionally a significant breakthrough in passenger risk management could well lie in empowering the cabin crew and having certified training courses on crisis management and self defence. Although this process will add more cost to the airlines, it would be a sound investment, particularly in view of the fact that cabin crew are inevitably the persons who are on the front line who are required to respond to an act of aggression on board.

The author is an aviation consultant with over 30 years of work experience in aviation. He worked for 23 years at the International Civil Aviation Organization as Senior Air Transport Officer and Senior Legal Officer respectively. He is currently President and CEO of Global Aviation Consultancies Inc., and Senior Associate, Air Law and Policy at Aviation Strategies International.

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