You’ve boarded a plane and found your seat, stowed your things and buckled up. The plane makes its way onto the runway and, after a short wait, the acceleration for take-off begins.
You’re reading the book you brought along and don’t pay any attention to what the plane is doing, but, as it speeds up, something breaks your focus on your reading. The man sitting next to you is sitting bolt upright, clenching the armrest between you with all his strength.
You turn to look at him, and immediately recognize what’s going on: he’s a fearful flyer. What for you is a cause for boredom and an excuse to get some reading done is for him a cause for abject terror.
You could just ignore him and go back to your reading. For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming you’re more compassionate than that and want to help him in some way.
So what can you do about it? How can you help this stranger who will be sitting next to you for the next several hours? I am one of those fearful flyers, and I can share with you the sorts of behaviors that have helped me over the years.
You may be one of those people who doesn’t want to talk to your neighbors on a plane. You’d be doing him a real kindness, though, if you start a conversation. It doesn’t matter what you talk about: just that you talk. It will help distract him from the various noises the plane is making. Those bumps and whines may be insignificant to you, but to him they might be signs of engine trouble.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend the whole flight speaking to him. Chances are he just needs help during the parts of the flight that scare him. Typically, that means the take-off, the landing, and any periods of turbulence. Once the plane reaches altitude and the seatbelt lights go off, he can probably focus on reading or watch a movie calmly.
Don’t bring up the topic of flying unless he brings it up. Some fearful flyers might say quite openly that they’re afraid, and might want to tell you why. Many, though, would rather talk about pretty much anything else, to avoid even thinking about flying. Let him talk. Ask leading questions to keep him talking. Look him in the eye and listen, or at least act like you’re listening.
3. Stay calm
For me, a key to dealing with my own fears—which, like every fearful flyer, I know are completely ridiculous—is seeing other people who keep calm. When the turbulence is bad, or at least it’s bad in my irrational head, it always helps me to see the flight attendants calmly going about their business, pouring coffee, serving food, and so on. They fly all the time, and if they’re calm, this level of turbulence must be normal.
If the plane banks, or turbulence sets in, or you start the descent, for example, don’t stop your conversation or tense up. Ignore these changes just as you normally would and continue talking. Your aura of calm will help the fearful flyer sitting next to you.
4. Hold hands
This one is a bit more extreme. I discovered years ago that it helped me to hold hands with the person next to me. I never would have dared to take the hand of a stranger until, on one flight, I was so busy being scared that I didn’t notice the person next to me. During a moment of turbulence, she suddenly grabbed my hand, then dropped it quickly, apologizing to me. I assured her that I didn’t mind at all, and whenever the turbulence started up again, we held hands. It helped! Completely irrational, I know, but that’s what phobias are about!
Don’t just take the person’s hand without permission, of course. You don’t want him to think you’re making a pass (unless you are!). However, if the person is visibly terrified, and you’ve already started up a conversation, go ahead and offer: “If you feel like it would help, you can hold my hand.”
One time on a flight from the Netherlands to Turkey, I was sitting next to a Turkish woman who started praying before we even took off. I tried to start a conversation with her but we were limited to only the most basic exchange of information; her Dutch was minimal and her English and my Turkish were non-existent. I managed to find out that she hadn’t flown in 20 years and that she was returning to Turkey to see her mother who was very ill.
It was clear without words, though, that she was terrified. I wasn’t feeling too great about flying either. So as soon as I started getting nervous (For me, that’s typically when there’s turbulence.), I simply took her hand. She startled, but then smiled at me. We spent most of that flight holding hands, and it helped both of us.
5. What not to do
Don’t joke about it! Jokes about airplane crashes or terrorists or engines falling off are most emphatically not funny to fearful flyers. It’s downright cruel to joke about these things in their presence.
Don’t lecture the person about how flying is safer than any other form of transportation. He undoubtedly knows that already. It’s in the nature of phobias that they are irrational. Reminding him of his irrationality will only exacerbate the embarrassment and shame that he already feels. You might have a fear of snakes or spiders or water; this is no different.
If you are not afraid of flying, please keep these tips in mind next time you fly. And if you’re phobic like me, don’t be afraid to ask for reassurance from your neighbor or start a conversation with him. The distraction helps!
Are you afraid of flying or have you ever found yourself sitting next to someone who was? How did you deal with it?
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