Five years ago, Dan MacAskill enjoyed what he describes as the best job of his life. As a national trainer for Sears Canada, he crisscrossed the country, using his gift for gab to help workers become better at their jobs.
Then something changed. As time went on, hopping on a plane for a meeting in Calgary or a presentation in Winnipeg became excruciating for MacAskill. Although he had some anxiety about flying before the job, his fear grew worse, until he not only asked to change his job but also left Sears Canada altogether. He eventually became a recruiter for a trucking company - working out of his basement.
"I structured my world and reduced my life so I wouldn't have to fly at all," the Barrie, Ont., resident says.
Fear of flying, also known as aviaphobia, makes travel unbearable for millions of people around the world. According to an oft-referenced report by Boeing, one in three people say they experience some degree of fear and anxiety when they take to the skies, with women about three times more likely than men to be included in that group.
Not only does this fear cause problems for fliers - anxious travellers report passing on job promotions and feeling guilty about lying to bosses about missing out-of-town meetings - it also hurts business. A recent American Management Association survey reported that 13 per cent of companies say employees' fear of flying has had an impact on their
Flying anxiety also has social and personal implications. Family members throw up their hands in disgust when Uncle Vernon misses the family reunion - again. It can also put strain on a marriage when one spouse refuses to go on vacation.
MacAskill's aviaphobia kept him from attending his best friend's wedding in Australia. But it was a photograph his wife took at Ayers Rock that made him think about tackling his fear for good.
"Something hit me in the pit of my stomach," he says. "The only reason I wasn't standing there next to her in the picture was because of this fear. This fear was costing me parts of my life."
Dr. Mitchell Schare, director of Hofstra University's PhD program in combined clinical and school psychology, says it's important not to confuse typical fear with phobias. Most people who fear flying experience the run-of-the-mill variety of anxiety - they might not like to fly, but they'll do it anyway. Someone who has a phobia, however, won't - can't - get on an airplane, even to attend a close family member's funeral.
It's no surprise that so many people hate to fly, he says.
"Well, why not? This is an abnormal behaviour that humans don't normally do. We're not birds," says Schare, who also oversees a virtual-reality therapy program at the New York university.
Don't assume most people with a fear of flying have had bad experiences, either. The majority of anxious fliers say they fear fear itself. They worry about having a panic attack on the flight, or not being able to breathe because the windows don't open. They say they're scared of turbulence or mechanical failure. They hate knowing they're not in control of the plane. And some have an aversion to sitting in an enclosed space among a crowd. Interestingly, even after 9/11, only a small minority, 8.5 per cent by one calculation, actually worries about terrorism when flying.
"I don't like fast-moving cars or heights. Put the two things together and you've got an airplane," says Jean Mills, a writer and teacher in Guelph, Ont.
Although she agrees to fly to Nova Scotia with her family each year to spend a few weeks at their summer house, she hates it, white-knuckling the armrests the whole way.
"There's no such thing as a fender-bender in the sky," agrees Kristi Cross, a jewellery designer and shop owner in Newmarket, Ont., who tries to think positive thoughts - or at least pop a couple of prescription tranquillizers to get through the flight.
One of her rituals is to size up flight attendants and think about jet-setting celebrities. "I'm thinking, 'They do this all the time.' But it doesn't work."
Diana Davis of Toronto attributes her fear to some turbulent flights between Toronto and Orlando, Fla. Although she doesn't fly for her work with a hotel chain, she loves seeing the world. But as soon as she books a flight, the dread
Weeks before the flight, she becomes an amateur meteorologist, checking the forecast a couple of times a day or going online to pore over statistics about airplane failures. Forget about sleeping the night before. And eating breakfast on the day of the trip? It's water or nothing.
It gets worse onboard. Her stomach flips, her palms get sweaty and tension headaches rush in. Just the smell of the airline meal makes her feel nauseated and irritable.
"It makes me so angry when I see people calm and enjoying the flight," she says. "I want to be like that."
Luckily, there are several options for people who want to kick their airline apprehension.
People with a free weekend and about $800 can go the traditional route, in a multiday seminar hosted by airline pilots and psychologists who go over everything from crash statistics - it's actually 261 times safer to fly from New York to Los Angeles than to drive the 4,500 kilometres - to how planes work. The thinking is that one of the main sources of anxiety stems from mechanical ignorance. Most of these classes, such as those offered by the DePlour Research and Training Centre in Montreal, are offered at international airports across the country. For an additional fee, students can sign up for a flight with other students and their instructors.
MacAskill says he took one of the courses while working at Sears and flew anxiety-free for a month. But the old feelings eventually returned. So he did some soul searching and realized that his fear stemmed from a traumatic accident when he was 6 that sent him to the hospital with a broken femur. He says he hasn't felt completely safe since.
But that understanding helped him. In the past two years, he has flown 36 times - and now teaches seminars in Toronto to help other people find ways to get over their fears.
Then there's the virtual-reality route. In Schare's program, clients put on a pair of special glasses, sit in an airplane seat and, with the help of a computer-generated environment and speakers that rumble at low
vibrations, get to experience flying without ever leaving the ground.
The best part - or worst - is that Schare and his associates can induce turbulence, lightning storms or the sensation that the airplane's air supply has been cut off - they just flick off a fan for that.
The program seems to work for some. When the clinic conducted a survey of 24 participants, 13 of them said they immediately flew in the real thing after their virtual flight.
Other anxious fliers seek out even more unconventional approaches, including hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP, to fight their fears. Elizabeth Payea-Butler, a NLP master trainer and counsellor in Toronto, says she uses both techniques together, taking clients into a light trance in order to teach them to reprogram their brains and kick old thought patterns.
Although some psychologists question the validity of NLP, other anxiety sufferers swear by it. Payea-Butler worked with one young flier from the ill-fated Air France flight that burned up on the runway in Toronto a couple of years ago. He now flies with his parents again, she says.
Still other options include online self-help programs, books and even something called Shrink on Board, an in-flight audio relaxation channel picked up by Delta Airlines and Finnair.
Beverly Hills, Calif., psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, who spoke at the World Conference on Fear of Flying in Montreal last June, developed the program after 9/11. Combining New Age music with nature sounds, a soothing voice-over instructs listeners to loosen their ties or take off their shoes before relaxing back in their airline seat.
And what about the good old-fashioned way of dealing with a fear of flying? Well, even though many people think a little tipple helps to conquer the jitters, drinking or taking prescription medication is not usually advisable.
"Alcohol works for the first few minutes, then people become agitated. It becomes a potentially fatal problem for other passengers too. The last thing you want is a passenger who is out of control," Lieberman says.
A World Health Organization study also recently revealed that passengers taking sedatives double their risk of developing deep vein thrombosis, which can be fatal or at least very painful. Remaining in one position for more than four hours isn't good for blood circulation, making it easier for clots to develop. Stay awake and you're more likely to get up to use the bathroom or wiggle around in your seat.
Blood circulation was possibly the last thing on Davis's mind when she travelled to London in the summer of 2006. Before the trip, she visited her doctor to ask for a sedative. Clutching her bottle the day of the flight, she popped two pills, but they hardly took the edge off. Against her doctor's orders, she took a Gravol.
"I was knocked out the entire flight. I'm not kidding you, the lady next to me was poking me to see if I was still alive," she says. "I could never travel like that for work."
Help is available
Want to kick your anxiety in the sky? Here are a few options:
uRnormal.com Dan MacAskill offers fear-of-flying seminars and personal coaching in the Greater Toronto Area. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virtual Reality Laboratory at Hofstra University The New York centre uses the latest technology. Call 516-463-5660 or visit http://www.hofstra.edu/Community/slzctr.
DePlour Research and Training Centre A traditional seminar program taught by pilots and therapists. Call 514-990-1111 or visit http://www.deplour.com.
Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada Find holistic practitioners and therapists.
Call 1-888-223-2252 or visit http://www.anxietycanada.ca.
Shrink on Board Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., sells her stress-busting audio and video program online. Call 310-278-5433 or visit http://www.drCarole.com.