I have a fear of flying – could easyJet’s Fearless Flying course cure me?
First, a confession. I have my dream job, but recently it’s started to feel more like a nightmare. As a travel journalist, I’m in airports every month to write articles about destinations all over the world. Yet somehow in recent years, I’ve developed a fear of flying.
True, I still get on planes regularly and haven’t curbed my travelling yet. I’m not a phobic who has panic attacks in the airport or refuses to even consider booking a flight. But turbulence fills me with dread, leaving me sweating, feeling sick and clenching the arm rests convinced the plane is about to plummet from the sky.
A recent hair-raising flight over the notoriously bumpy Rocky Mountains even made me wonder if I should consider a change in career. Instead, I signed up for easyJet’s Fearless Flyer course to try to conquer my fear for good. Held throughout the year at nine airports across the UK including London Luton and Gatwick, it has helped over 10,000 phobics over the last decade and has a success rate of more than 95%. I’m sceptical but reassured I’m not alone, with between 33% and 40% of people experiencing some form of anxiety about flying, with the fear first kicking in at an average age of 27.
This doesn’t just mean those who won’t set foot in an airport either. Fears can include claustrophobia, heights or even concern about having a panic attack. The course has three main parts, a virtual course that takes around two hours and can be completed at home, a one hour online Zoom Q&A session, and a 45-minute flight from the chosen airport. It’s run by course director and former phobic Mark Wein, who grew gradually more frightened of flying from the age of 18 until he had to feign illness to dodge a business trip at 30. He overcame his own phobia after meeting neuro-linguistic practitioner and motivational speaker Lawrence Leyton, who had recently filmed the Channel 4 show ‘Fear of Flying’.
Together, they devised a course to help others in the same situation. “Everyone says it’s not going to work for them,” Mark tells me. “Everyone thinks they’re the worst because they’re trying to visualise themselves on a plane at that moment – but they don’t have the training yet. You’ve got to be self-motivated but then you need to trust the process.”
The online course is simple enough to complete. Led by Lawrence and unflappable senior easyJet pilot Richard Jones, it aims to answer every possible technical question from what happens if the plane is hit by lightning to why you’ll hear certain noises when flying. There’s also the chance to compare a cup of water filmed in a car driving at 30 miles an hour, and a similar cup filmed on a plane during turbulence, which effectively emphasises the fact that the aeroplane really isn’t moving as much as I perceive when I’m gripping the seat with white knuckles.
“Turbulence reminds you that you’re doing something you don’t trust,” Mark says. “What you learn in the course is that you actually can trust the physics of it. So you may not like turbulence
like you don’t like driving down a bumpy road, but you won’t feel threatened by it.”
The rest of the fear of flying course focuses on ways to deal with fear, shift perceptions and reprogramme the mind. It includes ways to calm breathing, a tapping technique originally developed to overcome PTSD and mind exercises including one where you vividly reimagine the plane journey and repeatedly super-impose it on the worst-case scenario. It seems a little ridiculous – and I’m very pleased I’m doing it all in the privacy of my own home – yet I’m also aware of feeling noticeably calmer and more confident about the idea of flying.
A few days later, I go to Luton airport for the final flight with the other course participants. The youngest is just 17 and attending with his mum, keen to overcome his fear and get out to see the world. Others have never flown and are desperate to book their first holiday abroad. At check in, I chat to Abigail Marshall, another participant who loved flying until the pandemic. “I didn’t fly for two years then my first flight after Covid was to Egypt and I just had a meltdown at the airport. I felt complete panic. I just don’t know where it’s come from.”
On board, everyone looks nervous, but Mark is on hand to chat and remind us all of the techniques we learnt on the course. Most helpfully for me, Richard commandeers the tannoy, explaining every noise we can hear and every bump we feel. Once we’re in the air, relief sweeps through the plane. For some, they’ve already accomplished more than they ever thought possible. Fellow participant Morwenna Thomas is beaming within moments of taking off. She had her first panic attack at an airport earlier this year and went on to cancel a recent trip to Dubai. “I’m sad I wasted any time worrying about it now,” she says. “I want to book another trip straight away.”
The flight is textbook smooth so it’s difficult to tell if the course has made any discernible difference to me. However, I’m uncharacteristically relaxed during landing and for once, feel assured the plane and pilot will get me on the ground safely. Two weeks later, I fly to Lisbon for work and when the seatbelt sign illuminates during a brief bout of turbulence, I remember to breathe calmly, remind myself of all I learnt on the course and carry on reading. When the seatbelt sign turns off, I don’t even notice. I’m too busy wondering where I could go next.
The easyJet Fearless Flyer course costs from £89 per person. There are more dates throughout the UK coming up in 2023, with a course at Gatwick on Sunday 28 June and one in Luton on Saturday 24 June. Other fear of flying courses are out of London. Book at fearlessflyer.easyjet.com
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