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How to manage flight anxiety

How to overcome a fear of flying

At least 1 in 10 people have a fear of flying - and some studies suggest this proportion is much higher.

Having a fear of flying, also called flight anxiety, is officially classed as an anxiety disorder. To doctors, this is known as aerophobia, or sometimes aviophobia in the US. Here, we share the triggers, practical tips, and support you can get to help your next flight go as smoothly as possible.

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Why might someone develop a fear of flying?

There are many reasons for developing flight anxiety, thought to be worst in 25 to 34-year-olds. For example:

Anxious parents

Fear of flying could stem from having an anxious parent, whom someone has seen have panic attacks during flights.

Traumatic incidents

Flying can be a nerve-racking experience if someone has been involved in a traumatic incident, whether this is bad turbulence or a crash.

A lack of control

Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), explains how a fear of flying often stems from a lack of control.

"If you are on a train and you need to get off, you can do so at the next stop. If you're in a car, you can get out almost anywhere. But once you get on an aeroplane, you cannot leave. This sense of losing all authority over your actions can be very frightening," he says.

Imagination overdrive

Nippoda adds that people are used to feeling their feet on solid ground. Therefore, the idea of floating in the sky can lead to imagining worst-case scenarios.

"If catastrophic situations, such as engine failure, bad turbulence or a hijacking occur, the plane could crash. This fear of death can cause major flight anxiety, even if someone knows deep down those things are extremely unlikely. Their mind can go into overdrive."

How does a fear of flying present itself?

If you have a fear of flying, this can present itself in a number of ways. Some people have panic attacks just thinking about their flight, before they board. On the flight, a person could start:

  • Shaking.

  • Feeling dizzy or sick.

  • Sweating.

  • Having a quick heartbeat (palpitations).

  • Feeling short of breath.

  • Having a panic attack.

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What triggers flight anxiety?

Since everyone's fear of flying will likely develop from different situations, there are countless triggers. Some common ones include:

  • Watching flight-related accidents - in documentaries or fictional films.

  • Long-haul flights - Nippoda adds that longer flights can be more of a trigger. Passengers know they aren't going to be sitting on the plane for as long during a short journey, whereas a long-haul flight allows more time for disastrous thinking.

  • Having acrophobia or claustrophobia - a fear of heights or confined spaces.

How to get over your fear of flying

1. Practise rhythmic breathing

According to Nippoda, breathing exercises are really important for remaining calm before flying.

"There are many techniques but, in general, it's important to inhale for a short period (5 seconds) and exhale for a longer period (7 or 8 seconds). People can inhale naturally but exhale until they have emptied all the air from the lungs, which helps to keep the rhythm of breathing," says the psychotherapist.

2. Know your flight

It can help to check out the flight information before boarding for reassurance, says Nippoda. By doing this, you know what kind of aircraft you will be on, where your seat is, where the toilets are, and the general layout. Familiarising yourself with the aeroplane before you fly can mean the boarding experience feels less daunting.

Fear of flying vs reality

Educating yourself on what is reality versus what your brain fears, or what you've heard in movies, can be useful in overcoming fear of flying. Nippoda suggests studying accurate information, such as the points listed below, to help you feel safer on a flight and put things into perspective.

  • The odds that your plane will crash are 1 in 1.2 million, and the odds of dying from a crash are 1 in 11 million, according to Harvard University1.

  • Your chances of dying in a car accident, on the other hand, are one in 5,000.

  • 2023 was the safest year for commercial air travel since records began2.

  • A person could fly once a day for four million years before being involved in a fatal crash.

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How to deal with panic attacks on a plane

If you start to feel flight anxiety in the middle of a flight, it's likely this panic will worsen quickly if you feel trapped and aren't able to use an emergency exit. Therefore, starting breathing exercises straightaway can help calm you down.

You may want to close your eyes and visualise something that puts you at ease and calms your fear of flying. Perhaps this is you lying on the beach at your eventual holiday destination, or a peaceful landscape.

"Allow yourself to relax. Remind yourself that you are in control within a limited space, even if you feel out of control. By practising your anti-anxiety techniques, you can start to feel empowered," says Nippoda.

You can also practise simple distraction techniques such as:

  • Listening to music.

  • Listening to podcasts.

  • Watching a comforting film or TV series.

  • Doing a puzzle.

  • Reading a book.

If you feel extremely uncomfortable, do not hesitate to call for the staff on board, who have been trained to deal with passengers who struggle with anxiety.

If you have been prescribed medication for anxiety or panic attacks make sure you have it on hand.

How to support someone with a fear of flying

If you do not suffer from a fear of flying or flying anxiety but have a loved one who does, it can be difficult to know what to say, perhaps because you fear making the situation worse.

"Acknowledge that flying can be a scary thing, without invalidating how they feel," says Nippoda, adding that this is especially important if either of you are not a frequent flyer. They need to know they are not alone.

"Mention that other people on the same flight might have similar flying anxieties. You can also explain that, although there is not a zero per cent chance you will encounter a catastrophic situation, the probability is minimal as thousands of aeroplanes fly every day, but there are hardly any incidents.

"You can be realistic while being reassuring simultaneously. Reducing their belief that flying is scary by explaining probability like this can be helpful."

It might be useful to practise positive affirmations with your loved one. As you recite these, you should ask the other person to repeat each phrase. These phrases can be:

  • I am safe.

  • I am in control.

  • I am in good hands.

  • My fears are not realities.

  • There is no cause for alarm.

  • Planes make noise and that is normal.

  • Turbulence is just like a pothole in the road.

  • I am going to enjoy my trip.

Where can someone find support for fear of flying?

If you know somebody who has flown recently, you could ask about their experience. If you wish to speak to professionals who treat fear of flying, UKCP has a list of practitioners who offer support.

There are courses you can take to help you overcome your fear of flying and flight anxiety. They are offered by various airlines such as:

You can find support for flight anxiety by visiting:

Has fear of flying increased?

A survey carried out by National Geographic in 2017 revealed that one third of people in Britain are more scared of flying now than they were 10 years ago.

It's likely this figure increased with the global COVID-19 pandemic, as it triggered additional health and safety concerns in relation to the spread of the virus.

This said, there's a lack of reliable and consistent data on flight anxiety. In fact, it's roughly estimated that a fear of flying affects anywhere between 2.5% and 40% of the population3.

Modern day famous disasters, such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014, are another big cause of flight anxiety. Of the flyers who worry about engine failure and plane crashes, many admit that reading about plane crashes, disappearances and terrorist attacks in recent years has increased their fear.

  • Remember, the survival rates of plane accidents are much higher than you might think.

  • What is in your control is watching the safety demonstration at the start of your flight.

  • This, along with preparing for your flight, learning how low the risks are, and using the coping techniques above can help you manage your anxiety, so you can get to where you need to go.

Further reading

  1. Ropeik: How risky is flying?

  2. IATA Press Release: 2023 safest year for flying by several parameters.

  3. Abuso et al: Overcoming fear of flying: a combined approach of psychopharmacology and gradual exposure therapy.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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