Air sickness: Is there a cure for our fear of flying?
Air travel has never been safer, but that has not allayed our deep-seated fears, as the story of Flight MH370 unfolds
Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30
The mystery began a fortnight ago just 40 minutes into what should have been a routine long-haul flight between two Asian cities. On most such journeys, passengers would just be settling down with their drinks at that time as stewards move around the cabin.
A pilot on the Malaysian jet bound for Beijing made his last call to local air traffic controllers – "All right good night". And then the plane – flight MH370 – vanished and, for many days afterwards, nobody on the outside seemed to know what had happened. Or if they did know, they did not let on.
Planes used to disappear in the era of magnificent men in their flying machines. The plane bearing female flying ace Amelia Earhart was never found after it vanished in the 1930s: and a British airliner was lost in 1947 in the Andes after crashing into a mountain, and only discovered half a century later.
But in the modern times of radar, satellites, tracking devices and transponders it is unheard of for a jet 74 metres long and 61 metres wide to go missing for such a lengthy period of time. One retired Aer Lingus pilot told Weekend Review he had never heard of such a case in a career spanning half a century.
Malaysians hold candles during a special prayer for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur
Statisticians may tell us until we are blue in the face that the trip out to the airport by car is the most dangerous part of any plane journey, but incidents such as the disappearing plane play on our worst fears about being up in the air.
Psychologist Dr Maeve Byrne Crangle, who has helped thousands of terrified Irish plane passengers to overcome their fear of flying, says: "Incidents such as this always reinforce people's fears. It was the same after the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001.
"It is important to take terrible events such as this in proportion and for people to focus on the facts – that millions of flights take off and land safely all the time."
With the growth of Ryanair and cheap air travel, travelling by jet may now be commonplace, but we still have not overcome our anxieties. In fact, they may have been heightened.
The remains of a Pan-Am747 Jumbo Jet tail section on the runway at Santa Cruz Airport in Tenerife
On the law of averages, in any row of six passengers, at least one will be petrified. And there are thousands back on the ground who will forego the pleasure of a holiday in the sun rather than sit on a plane.
Dr Byrne Crangle says: "Fear of flying is a complex problem, and may be down to a number of factors. Some people may have a fear of heights. Others have a fear of the unknown, of not being in control or of being in an enclosed space."
Michael Comyn, a trained pilot and therapist, holds Fly Fearless seminars in Dublin for those who are terrified of aeroplanes.
"We are so busy that we have a waiting list until June," says Comyn, who uses an aircraft simulator to help anxious passengers. During his sessions, participants can experience turbulence and thunderstorms for themselves in the cockpit.
With each passing year, air travel has in fact become safer. According to Comyn, in 1945 the risk associated with air travel was comparable to that of travelling in a car, but now there is no comparison.
"Every year in the United States the number killed in car crashes (usually 30,000-40,000) is much more than the total number killed in air accidents in the entire history of global aviation," he says.
You only have to look at our own airlines to see how safe flying has become.
Aer Lingus planes
In 1967, two Aer Lingus Vickers Viscounts crashed. Three crew members died on a training flight when one of the planes came down near Ashbourne, Co Meath, and another Viscount crashed at Bristol airport, but there were no deaths.
In the biggest Aer Lingus disaster of all in the following year, another Viscount crashed at Tusker Rock, and all 61 people on board perished.
Since then – a period of 46 years – there has not been a single fatal crash of an Aer Lingus plane. Ryanair, one of the biggest airlines in the world, has not had one fatal crash in its 29-year history.
So why haven't years of safe air travel, with just a few headline-grabbing disasters, allayed people's fears?
"When you have cases such as the disappearance of the Malaysian jet, it is not knowing what happened that causes people to be afraid," says Comyn. "Mr and Mrs Murphy visiting their grandchild in Sydney are affected.
"When they cannot understand what has happened they tend to fill the void, and conspiracy theories flourish. People could not comprehend how people would fly planes into the Twin Towers. So, some became convinced that the US military must have been responsible for what happened."
In 2009, an Air France aircraft, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, went down in the Atlantic, and it was five days before any wreckage was spotted. An investigation found that air speed instruments had probably frozen and there was an element of pilot error.
The Aer Lingus Vickers Viscount crash off the Tuskar Rock
"Many people are still convinced that the crash was caused by turbulence, and this causes them to be fearful," says Comyn. "In fact, the only danger that you are likely to encounter from turbulence is that you will be scalded by coffee."
The heightened security after the Twin Towers attacks may have prevented terrorist incidents, but it has also stoked up people's anxieties.
"A lot of fear is caused by lack of knowledge of what is going on. Passengers starting a flight used to be able look into the cockpit, and pilots were able to talk to them. But now they are sealed away.
"When you take a bottle of water off a granny in the terminal you make them feel more anxious."
Hijacking was perceived to be one of the dangers after 9/11, and previously during a spate of incidents in the 1970s and 1980s.
The only recorded case of hijacking on an Aer Lingus flight took place in 1981 when a former Trappist monk soaked himself in petrol and demanded to be told the Third Secret of Fatima, before the plane landed in Paris.
Michael Comyn at the controls of a flight simulator, which is used to help anxious passengers
Fortunately, there were no deaths or injuries as the plane was stormed by French special forces.
"There is now less danger of hijackings because since 9/11 passengers are no longer compliant and will take down hijackers," says Comyn.
The chances of mechanical failure are also much less likely due to improved technology and a phenomenon known in aviation as 'tombstone engineering'. Every time there is a crash it is thoroughly investigated and the design of aircraft and crew procedures adjusted to take the flaws into account.
But still there is the lingering fear. As Comyn notes, you can give all the facts about aviation safety you want, but that still will not allay the fears of the ordinary flyer at home gritting their teeth as the latest chapter in the story of Flight MH370 opens.