Saturday 22 October 2016

How a nervous flier reacts when disaster strikes

Published 06/06/2009 | 00:00

The news of an air disaster like this week's Air France crash over the Atlantic has a strange effect on nervous fliers like myself.

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The first response, of course, is one of sympathy. My heart goes out to those 228 passengers and crew on board flight AF447 from Rio de Janeiro, and to their families.

As someone who has imagined his flight going down over the ocean many times, I picture what the last moments of those on board might have been like: the screams, the prayers, the frenzied calls and texts.

This first wave of fellow-feeling is followed by a second, more calculating reaction.

How does the fate of this Airbus A320 affect my own chances of survival in the skies?

Frightened fliers like myself are always calculating odds. We know the safety record of the various aircraft manufacturers. We check the age and condition of the craft as we board. We listen for the reassuring baritone of the captain over the public address system.

And, crass and unfeeling as it may seem, we think that if one Airbus has gone down over the Atlantic, then the chances of another falling from the sky must now be correspondingly more remote.

I wasn't always a twitchy traveller. Once, in my carefree youth, I used to actually look forward to flying. I marvelled at the cotton-wool clouds and thrilled at the patchwork fields below.

Ah, those innocent, prelapsarian days.

Then came a flight over the Alps to Turin (Air France again, as it happens). Air pockets, turbulence, bangs, crashes, overhead bins opening, food trolleys careering down the aisle, oxygen masks descending, Italians screaming, rosaries being fingered, hands being held.

We limped into Turin airport, bodily intact but psychologically destroyed.

That child-like trust in one's invulnerability, that belief that flying in a metal tube 35,000ft in the air is a perfectly normal thing to do, had been dealt a blow from which it would never recover.

Of course, I tried various things to restore my confidence in the aviation industry.

I even consulted the late, great Allen Carr, whose book had once helped me to quit smoking.

Mr Carr followed up his anti-nicotine classic with a book about how to conquer fear of flying. He used the same formula that proved so successful with smokers: he took each of the nervous flier's fears (dangers of take-off and landing, turbulence, mid-air crashes, lightning strikes etc) and calmly dismissed them as irrational.

Not surprisingly, this approach failed. Fear of flying is not amenable to rational argument. It has to do with a deep-seated belief that human beings were not meant to move at such altitude and speed, and that it will all end in tears one day.

It also has to do with the process of getting on a plane: the stress of getting to the airport on time, the removal by uniformed personnel of one's belongings, the security search, the straining to hear those bing-bong announcements, the gradual loss of control.

Even before this week's tragic news, I had made my mind up to minimise my flying. I was going to take the ferry to France and drive south. It would be leisurely. It would be sophisticated. There would be fine dining and waving at other sea craft. It would recall the great days of travel.

And, of course, it would save the planet. Taking boat and car to the Continent creates roughly half the carbon emissions as flying there does.

I was struck by a documentary recently which showed that every carbon-reducing thing a family of four could do in a year (cycling to work, switching off lights, turning down thermostats, composting, recycling etc) is wiped out by one transatlantic flight.

I explained my new flight-free life to my wife. I told her that small Alpine plants and penguins would thank us for this carbon reduction.

She didn't seem impressed.

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