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More afraid of flying than ever? Here's how to cope

After three plane disasters in a week, Kate Whiting asks whether air travel is a good idea right now, and how we can calm on-board nerves.

Air disasters seem to have dominated the headlines recently, with almost 500 people killed in major incidents in the past few weeks alone. For many UK citizens, who perhaps only fly when they're jetting off on their summer holidays, these tragic events might well have left them unsure about whether they should be stepping foot on a plane at all.

According to experts, though – and as unlikely as it sounds given the number of recent crashes – the safest time to fly is actually in the wake of an air emergency.

"Immediately afterwards, everybody is much more on their toes and following the rules to a greater degree of safety," says Derek Robbins, senior lecturer in transport and tourism at Bournemouth University.

"Yes, it's absolutely safe to fly," agrees Professor Norman Shanks, visiting professor of aviation security at Coventry University. "There's always a risk, as with everything in life. But while tragic, these recent instances don't constitute a huge risk to the hundreds of thousands of aircraft that fly every day.

"In terms of risk from security issues, while nobody can prepare for ground attacks from surface to air missiles other than just avoiding that airspace, which is what they're now doing, the other risks are manageable.

"The major airlines have their own integral security teams, so there will be a higher degree of risk management now."

July may now be the fifth worst month in history for aviation disasters, according to statistics, but Robbins points out that flying is still the "safest mode of transport if you measure fatalities per kilometre travel".

More than three billion people flew on 36.4 million flights last year, according to the International Air Transport Association, and there were only 81 aviation accidents, which is less than half the 250 crashes per year of 20 years ago.

"I wouldn't cancel plans," says Robbins. "I would hope my airline's not flying right over the conflict in Ukraine, but that's highly unlikely."

He advises travellers to allow plenty of time at the airport to get through heightened security. "Three hours is better than two because it takes longer to clear certain hurdles, but that's actually reassuring," he says.

And he adds that, while the air disasters are absolutely tragic for those involved, in a year's time, they won't hold the same sway over us.

"People have remarkably short memories," says Robbins.

"We soul-searched on what we thought would be the impact of Costa Concordia on cruise shipping and, for a period of about two or three months, there was a significant downturn in bookings, but it picked up again really quite quickly."

Cognitive therapist Dan Roberts (www.calmself.co.uk), shares these top tips for controlling pre-flight nerves:

  • Be rational about the risk level. Flying is still the safest means of transport and a few tragic incidents don't change that. In our 24/7 rolling news world, we are made more aware of those incidents, so ignore the news before you fly.
  • Think about how many thousands of flights take off and land perfectly safely every day. How many flights have you taken? And how many have crashed? None, most likely.
  • Change your breathing so it is slow and deep, which can make you feel instantly more relaxed and calm. Aim for five seconds in, five out. Just make sure the in-breath isn't longer than the out, or you will take in too much oxygen and get dizzy. Try 'abdominal breathing', so you feel your stomach rise and fall with each breath.
  • If you are playing a sort of scary movie version of flying in your head, with everything that might go wrong, change the movie to a coping version. This has a powerful impact on the brain, calming down the 'threat system' which is making you anxious, so it really helps. Do this every day before your flight.
  • Talking helps. If you are anxious, talk to your partner, friend or even a therapist. Keeping your fears and worries inside because you think they are silly will only make them worse.
  • If the problem is really bad, see a cognitive therapist – cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is proven to be the best talking therapy for phobias or anxiety problems generally. I treat flying phobias all the time, so it's very much possible to cure a phobia, even if you have had it for a long time.

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