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Grounded by fear

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  • One in four are afraid of flying even though air travel is the safest form of transport
  • TTravelersafraid of flying are advised not to dwell on reasons for incidents
  • Build confidence and relaxation building understanding and deep breathing
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by Emma Clarke
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(CNN) -- For those that suffer from a fear of flying, the British Airways Boeing 777 crash landing will not have been welcome news. After all, when planes fall out of the sky -- for what is still an unclear reason -- air travel seems more miracle than science.

Accidents do happen. But very rarely. There was only one accident for every 1.5 million flights in 2006.

The initial report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, released the day after the incident at Heathrow airport, revealed that the two engines "did not respond" to a demand for increased thrust about two miles from touchdown.

The reason for the lack of response is still unknown. Lack of fuel? Nope. Problems with the engine control commands? Apparently not. Another possibility, currently being examined, is a fault in the flow of fuel from the aircraft's tanks. Read the report update.

But these ruminations should not concern those afraid of flying, says Captain Peter Hughes, an ex-British Airways pilot and founder of Aviatours, a fear of flying course run in conjunction with BA. "Don't dwell on the incident itself," he says. "By analyzing the details you produce as many question as answers."

Aviatours helps 1,200 people every year (a third, business travelers) get over their aerophobia and back onto planes. Since the crash Hughes has had an influx of emails and calls from people fearing a relapse as a result of the BA crash landing.

To rebuild confidence, he says, is a matter of helping them accept that the aircraft landed safely, no one was hurt and that flying is much safer than any form of transport.

An extra reassurance, he adds, is that the 667 Boeing 777s that are currently in operation around the world were not grounded. "If it was something they had no idea about, they would have had to ground the planes," he says. "They will find an answer to what happened."

Neither does Hughes spend too much time dwelling on figures proving the safety of flying.

(But if you are interested, there was only one accident for every 1.5 million flights in 2006. And while 755 people died in aircraft accidents around the world that year, over 39,000 people died on Europe's roads alone.)

As Hughes says, statistics have little effect in reducing fear. It's a bit like giving telling someone that bungee jumping is as safe as crossing the road just before they make the leap.

The aim, once again, is to build confidence by providing a better understanding of how an airplane works and what keeps it in the air. "This is an area of science and technology that people don't understand. Therefore they have no control over it. And if you lose control, you have fear," he says.

The Aviatours course focuses on how the aircraft flies - explaining turbulence, jet streams and all those bumps and moans that torture the nervous flier. Video Watch report on aerophobia and how the aviation industry is tackling it. »

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The other part of the program uses psychologists to work with fliers on treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy that challenges negative thoughts and uses behavioral techniques to desensitize people to their phobia.

A variety of courses are available to help treat fear of flying, many from airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, KLM and Austrian Airlines.

Another remedy for aerophobia is hypnotherapy. Georgia Foster is a clinical hypnotherapist who has helped many business travelers get over their fears.

Most, she says, actually aren't afraid of flying. Instead they are claustrophobic. "And then being up so high where they are not fully in control exacerbates the anxiety," she says.

Many travelers get over these fears by using familiar strategies such as sitting in a certain seat or only taking evening flights so they can down a few vodkas before take off. But if they can't get the desired seat or they are forced to take a morning flight when vodka isn't so attractive, a panic attack can be easily induced.

Hypnotherapy gets to the bottom of the problem by communicating with the unconscious mind. "It is the conscious mind that says, 'let's get on the plane'," says Foster. "But the unconscious mind that is screaming that it's not safe."

Hypnotherapy trains the mind to connect relaxed feelings or behaviors such as deep breathing with the flight experience. The process can be completed in a couple of one-hour sessions and the effects are permanent, says Foster.

Even if there isn't time or inclination for hypnosis, travelers can try a few deep breaths to calm nerves before and during the flight. "When you breathe deeply you cannot have a panic attack. It's not possible," says Foster. The best option is to use the Pilates or Yoga technique by breathing from the diaphragm not the lungs.

"Flying is stressful, it is time-consuming, it is very boring and it is frustrating. So it's not surprising that there is a high level of phobia among business travelers," she says.

But given its prevalence (one in four are thought to discomfited by flying, says Hughes) and given its effects are worst before the flight when business travelers should be either preparing for or performing on a trip, getting the breathing right and developing a more rational response to accidents may really be worth the effort.


Lucas van Gerwen, director the Valk Foundation (a collaborative venture by the University of Leiden, KLM and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to help travelers cope with fear of flying) offers some tips to remove stress during a flight.

• Prepare in time for a trip
• Be at the airport in time
• Eat the right stuff and not too much before a flight
• No tight clothes
• In case fear arises, tell the cabin attendant
• Don't refuse to move seat
• Concentrate on exhaling and not on inhaling
• Accept the bodily symptoms of anxiety. If necessary visualize them
• Be aware that air is something massive and not like a vacuum
• Stay in the present. Don't think "what if?"
• Drink more than usual, but not in the form of alcohol
• Try to do what you fear. If you are afraid to move: move. If you are afraid to lookout of the window: lookout of the window E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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