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Tips on Stress-Free Travel and tackling those Fears of Flying

Paul Tizzard Head And Shoulders

Author: Contributor: Paul Tizzard

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In one way or another, some 30% of us have a fear of flying or experience ‘aerophobia’, as it is otherwise called. The other 70% of us may still experience anxiety, feelings of stress and restless nights prior to catching a flight.

A common misconception is that those with a fear of flying are anxious people in general, very irregular flyers, and avoid new adventures at the cost of their hearts beating too quickly and sending them into an altogether, humiliating flap. This is WRONG. What those who don’t suffer from aviophobia don’t know is that those who do suffer are just as ordinary as everyone else. People who have this phobia cannot wrap their head around the unnatural state of being five miles above ground, in a heavy metallic object. When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound so silly, does it?

We were lucky enough to interview Paul Tizzard, Director of the highly acclaimed Virgin Atlantic ‘Flying Without Fear’ programmeto ask him some advice on the matter! The programme has a whopping 98% success rate to date and has helped thousands of people every year to overcome their fear of flying.

How did the Fear of Flying programme start?

The course started in 1997 after I approached Richard Branson with the idea. At the time, I was just an enthusiastic customer service trainer working for Virgin. Richard immediately recognised that it was the right thing to do to help our passengers. The aim of the programme is to educate people with a fear of flying, in the hope that having a greater understanding might alleviate some of the irrational fears and allow them to take back control. The programme has evolved over the years and we now run about 25 seminars per year.

Can you give an overview of the programme?

The training starts with interactive talks with a Virgin Atlantic pilot who helps to debunk media myths about commercial aviation and reassure nervous passengers about all the training, regulation, checks and back-up systems in place. This alone can almost be enough to help someone want to fly. A cabin crew safety trainer also helps people realise all the safety training that crew receive, stressing that every airline teaches to the same safety standards.

Then we start with the psycho educational talks. This is about giving people tools and techniques that they can use quickly and easily when facing their biggest fears. 

We keep the best part for the end: we take a specially chartered flight. We use Virgin Atlantic new Dreamliner when we can but we also use special partner airlines. The flight is narrated throughout which gives people a chance to update themselves in ‘real time’: what they think is happening is put into perspective by a pilot talking to them from the flight deck (he or she isn’t flying the aircraft at same time!)

What type of people participate? Are frequent travellers also involved?

We see around 2,000 -3,000 people per year and it seems the fear affects all ages and genders. Our attendees have ranged from 4 to 87 years old so far. We have been running courses for children for 6 years too. On most courses, the attending public looks something like:

  • 5-10% have never flown
  • 40% flew at some point in their lives but then stopped
  • The remainder fly but have varying levels of anxiety or phobia
The Flying without Fear programme has a 98% success rate. This seems very high. Why do you think it is so successful?

In a nutshell, Virgin people care. We are all volunteers and the programme is about helping people to be able to make different life choices as not being able to fly can have a massive impact on our lives.

We measure our success by asking the question ‘How do you feel about flying?’ at the beginning of the course’ and then asking the same question at the end and measure the improvement.

Beating a fear is a process that can take years or moments, depends on the individual concerned. We know that for some people, to just walking into an airport is a huge success and a good healthy step on the way to beating the fear. Everyone must beat the fear at their own pace!

We always say that while it is possible to improve how you feel about flying, it is not a miracle.

Aside from this programme, what do you can help people alleviate their fears of flying? Can you share some tips?
  • Get some help. Websites are out there. Professionals are out there.
  • You were not born with a fear of flying. It is learned. It is never too late to learn something new.
  • Start today. Do something positive towards beating your fears and keep going, never give up.
  • Practice mindfulness or proper breathing techniques as this will give you something very positive to focus on.
How to reassure someone at 35,000 feet?

Talk to a member of cabin crew who seems empathetic (99% are but it is their job at the end of the day!) Sometimes, pilots will come out and talk to you if you are lucky.

Everything on your flight has been planned for. There are backups for everything. No one single failure of anything can cause a disaster for you. The pilots are there for the ‘what ifs’, that is their job. The aircraft is stronger than you believe and no harm will come to you if you are strapped in, no matter how bad the weather is.

Have you ever felt this fear of flying yourself?

I haven’t.  However, one of the Directors of the programme, Richard Conway, used to have a fear of flying and some of the team from this course helped him.

Do you have data around number of plane accidents per year? How does it impact people’s fears?

Some of the speakers have this type of data in their heads, mainly our safety trainers and the pilots. People’s fears are impacted when there is an incident that appears in the media. Most of our customers have literally read every article, watched everything on the news…The problem is that they are letting stuff into their heads which may not be accurate. In the initial weeks after an incident, the media coverage is overwhelming but not always accurate. We always wait for the accident investigation report before we comment.  Also, it is worth remembering that commercial aviation is the only travel industry where we learn from mistakes and pass that learning on. It is not something that is held to an airline. Every pilot will be re trained if necessary or procedures will change. For example, you cannot get into a flight deck area now during a flight after Sept 11th Twin Towers. This is safer but it is also a shame for nervous flyers as that can be very reassuring to pop in to see the pilots. Also, the future generation of pilots cannot visit the flight deck with their mums and dads now!

These accidents are also getting high news coverage especially in today’s world. Does it have a big impact on travellers and their fears?

Yes, the coverage is non-stop. It is so pervasive that it is hard to escape reading or seeing coverage. This definitely feeds the fears of our nervous customers.

In a world where terror attacks are becoming more frequent, how can we cope with people’s fears?

Terror attacks have always occurred. Whether they are more frequent is a matter of perspective and news coverage.  Commercial aviation is very hard to break into from a terrorist point of view. It is not impossible but it is also not a soft target. There are much easier, less monitored ways to spread terror and fear than commercial aviation. If there ever is a breach, it is investigated, learned from and measures are put in place.

Is aviation technology and in-flight experience developing in any way to help those with a fear of flying?

General passenger comfort is improving all the time. I think that a lot more could be done by airports to help nervous flyers and passengers generally. Flying is a very dehumanising experience, even for the non-nervous. Newer aircraft such as Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 are doing a lot to reduce jet lag, make flying feel more comfortable and spacious.

How do you think an airport hotel such as YOTELAIR can help people with a fear of flying? Are there any other services you think we should introduce for our customers in that respect?

YOTELAIR should encourage people with a recognised fear of flying to book with them. We encourage people to fly with ease. In other words, book direct flights with carriers you trust. Don’t rush to the airport and add to your stress, stay overnight before your flight. With an airport hotel, the airport becomes part of your holiday. This is a stressful thing for anyone to do, let alone nervous flyers. Help yourself.  Just think of everything that needs doing before you fly…you need to book flights, hotels, insurance, sort out packing, pets, milk, food, house being looked after, finish off work…The whole process is stressful. If you want stressful flying, you need to remove the stress before so staying in a nearby hotel before you fly does add a bit of cost but surely, the benefits of arriving a bit less rushed and a bit more rested are worth it?

Paul Tizzard - Co-Founder, Virgin Atlantic Flying Without Fear

Virgin ‘Fear of Flying’ programme: The premium courses cost £267 including VAT for one day of training.  We currently hold courses at following airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Southampton and Leeds.

YOTELAIR’s innovative and futuristic facilities take care of all the jobs we dread doing and roll our eyes over, from checking in our luggage, to getting to the airport in plenty of time. We have in-terminal hotels at London Heathrow, London Gatwick, Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Author: Contributor: Paul Tizzard

Paul Tizzard is the Co-Founder of Virgin Atlantic Flying without Fear Programme and also a trained coach, facilitator who has been training people for over 20 years

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