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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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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