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Fear Of Flying? There's A Special Flight School Just For You

Approaching runway at Geneva airport
Approaching runway at Geneva airport
Sylvie Logean

GENEVA — It's just before 7:30 a.m. on the train station platform. White letters on the display panel spell out the final destination of the approaching train: Geneva Airport. A-I-R-P-O-R-T. Just the sight of those seven small letters produces a cold sweat, a knot in the stomach, a slight dizziness.

For most people, airports are a launching point for a world of possibilities. They're synonymous with vacations, new horizons. But not for me. I wander around them like a zombie, clutching my box of anti-anxiety pills like it's my best friend.

I admit, I'm afraid of planes. Every time I take one, I tell myself over and over again how it's the safest means of transport, that the likelihood of dying is one in 20 million. But in vain. As soon as I buy a ticket, my blood freezes. Catastrophe scenarios multiply in my head. The anxiety overwhelms me. And yet, here I am, on an early July morning, on my way to the airport. First stop? Arrivals.

Day 1: Understanding our fears

Nudged on by a colleague, I meet up with about 15 other participants in a workshop called "Flying without Fear," organized in collaboration with Swiss airline and the Geneva Airport. The course dates back to 1984 and, for the past 20 years, has been run by Fabienne Regard, who once had flying phobia herself but now jets around the world with obvious pleasure. "We're excited to make you as happy about flying as we've become," she says. All she asks is that we believe her.

Opening introductions. Each of us is encouraged to freely share our fears about planes: from the feeling of losing control, to fears of empty space or claustrophobia. So far so good. We aren't necessarily reassured, but it does make us feel less alone, and that certainly helps. "The anxiety you feel doesn't mean you're in danger," Fabienne explains during our first session on the mechanisms of fear and how to manage it.

The typical profile of a terrified passenger? "Often it's people who are very demanding of themselves, who struggle to delegate," the instructor explains. People who like to control events but who also, in some cases, had a bad experience flying. About 40% of people who are afraid of taking planes experienced some kind of scenario like strong turbulence or a rough landing. "These situations are obviously unpleasant for passengers, but you need to know that for pilots, they're just routine procedures," explains Luc Wolfensberger, a captain at Swiss who accompanies us the entire day.

Day 2: Planes don't fly by magic

The slow process of demystification continues the following day. The workshop combines technical explanations with relaxation methods, such as cardiac coherence or self-hypnosis. We also do a lot of work on superstitions, trying to distinguish what actually happens on a flight from our subjective feelings about flying. These feelings can be influenced as much by major media coverage of air accidents as by stories of friends who thought "they might die" because of strong turbulence.

The problem is that the stories take root in our brains and create misled fears about the real risks of flying. It is therefore important to be able to take a step back, and for this, it undoubtedly helps to gain a better understanding of how planes operate.

Ready for lift-off? — Photo: AeroIcarus

Thanks to the presence of various professionals (two flight attendants, a cabin crew head, and a former air traffic controller), we get answers to all of our questions, however far-fetched. What are the different sounds a plane makes? Why does it feel like the engines lose power after takeoff? How long would the plane stay in the air if the engines stopped? Exactly how dangerous can turbulence be? What kind of backup systems are in place?

By going over different crash scenarios, we come to the conclusion that in each case, accidents are almost always the result of a rare combination of human and technical errors, something experts call the "Swiss cheese model," when one hole overlaps another. We also learn that the air industry learns from each rare accident and implements even tighter controls.

Some of the explanations, like how a plane takes off, make us wish we'd paid better attention in our high school physics classes. But we are also surprised, sitting in the cockpit of an Airbus A330, that we can begin imagining the pleasure of piloting such a machine. A first step toward recovery?

Day 3: Ready for takeoff

Exactly 9 a.m. in the arrivals hall, they same place we'd gathered on the first day. Only now we're all probably a little different. For the grand finale of the course, a round-trip flight to Zurich, we've been organized into smaller groups, each with an individual coach. Despite the fear on some faces, no one backs out. The group energy and solidarity helps us keep negative ideas from surfacing. The knot in my stomach has not completely disappeared, but this time there are no anti-anxiety pills — already a step in the right direction.

On the flight, my coach, Jean-Luc Genoud, a former air traffic controller, answers all my questions. Is it normal the way the wing's moving? What happens if the landing gear gets stuck? His best piece of advice is not to remain passive. "If the plane moves, move with it," he says. "During turbulence, you can move in your seat. Or look at the level of the water in your glass or bottle to see that the plane doesn't move as much as you think." A bit skeptical at first, I realize, to my surprise, that it works.

On the way back, many of us feel the electric euphoria of having overcome fear. Several of the participants who have had the opportunity to take flights since that first great leap still can't get over how quickly they managed to free themselves from their fears. As for me, I surprise myself on the flight back from Zurich. This time it's me soothing my nervous neighbor by explaining the plane's various sounds and movements. Before, I was always the one gripping onto the armrests for dear life.

The key to success? "Fly as often as possible," says Fabienne Regard. From now on, I promise to do just that.

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