9/11. Malaysian Airlines flight 370, US Airways Flight 1549. Millions of people suffer from a fear of traveling by airplane. Is this fear rational? Should we all be a bit more hesitant before setting foot on those giant metal flying machines? Also, where did this fear come from? Why are some people afraid and others are not?
First things first, let’s take a look at where this fear may have started. People attribute the most danger to airplanes when other forms of travel are just as dangerous, if not more so (more on this later). One thing that may have led to this a combination of confirmation bias, and the media. Whenever a plane goes down and people are killed, the media sensationalizes the event. You hear about it all the time non-stop. Due to this you think it happens all the time. Every time a plane crashes and you hear about it on the news, it sticks out in your mind. You never consider all the planes that don’t erupt in a fiery pile of death and destruction. Since you only hear when planes crash, you already have a bias that that’s what planes do. And every subsequent crash you hear of only reinforces that bias.
So do planes actually crash all that often? Earlier, I said that other forms of travel are just as dangerous as flying. Let’s look at probably your most preferred mode of transportation, driving. You feel relatively safe while driving, right? Well according to USA Today, statistically speaking, driving is FAR more dangerous than flying. In 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted some research as to the safety of driving. They found that over millions of accidents, there had been 1.27 deaths per 100 million miles traveled. That doesn’t sound too bad. How does flying stack up? The National Transportation Safety Board compiled a similar data search. In the same year, planes had 20 accidents, no deaths, five people injured. This equates to about 0 accidents per million flying miles.
So, statistically speaking, you should not be any more scared to fly on an airplane than you should be to ride in a car. I know that simple statement won’t get anyone who is already afraid of flying to change their mind in a heartbeat. So what can you do to ease your fears? Well the US National Library of Medicine looked into that for you. According to pubmed.gov, a study used virtual reality simulations to see if that would help people approach their fears. This study included 30 participants which were split into 3 groups. One group received virtual reality graded exposure therapy (VRGET) with physiological feedback. Another group had the same VRGET but without the physiological feedback. And the third group just had imaginal exposure therapy (IET) which means they just imagine themselves being on a plane, rather than seeing it in virtual reality. The study consisted of an initial benchmark flight on a plane, 8 sessions of either VRGET or IET depending on their group, and a followup plane ride three months later. The study found that 10% of the participants who received IET could do the followup plane ride without the assistance of medication. The same was said for 80% of people who received VRGET with no physiological feedback, and 100% of those with VRGET and physiological feedback. Although it was a small sample size, it does show compelling evidence for a conclusion.
While VRGET might not be feasible for everyone with a fear of flying, what VRGET did was get the participants used to the experiecne of flying. So if you want to get over your fear of flying, just keep the statistcs in mind and try to get a few flights under your belt. You should eventually get over your fear as you get used to flying on an airplane.