A lot of people have a fear of flying. While there is no concrete number of exactly how many people are afraid to fly, some estimates are as high as 40% of the population. Every one of us could probably name someone in our lives who is afraid of flying. Many of you reading this might be. And this line of conversation comes up a lot when I talk to people about my job as a flight attendant. One of the most common things I’m asked is: “Don’t you ever get scared?“
Today we’re going to talk about it.
I can’t speak for all flight attendants—actually I can’t speak for any flight attendants except myself. But while a severe fear of flying would make our jobs impossible or impossibly painful, some flight attendants do actually get scared of flying sometimes. I’m one of them.
I hesitated to share this publicly, because I know so many people who are afraid of flying look to us, flight attendants, for reassurance. And I can give that reassurance easily. Flying is a very safe mode of transportation. Much safer than driving, which accounts for about 94% of transportation accidents!
But even with my wings, I’m still human. And sometimes this flight attendant gets scared.
It is not a severe phobia, and I might be the only Flight Attendant in the world that this happens to. But just in case I’m not, I decided to open up about it. I’m going to talk about how my sometimes-nervous-flyer tendencies started, how they manifest on the job, and how I’m dealing with it. My intention, of course, is not to scare anyone. Instead, I’d like to provide the nervous flyers out there some camaraderie—I get it—and also an example of someone pushing through those difficult moments (over and over again) to do what I love.
So, I hope this one “lands” the right way.
I’ll also be including some resources at the end of this post with tips and information for nervous flyers.
Before Becoming A Flight Attendant
A fun mode of transport...but it won't get you far.
In the olden days, before I became a flight attendant, I loved the whole business of flying.
From getting up early to drive into Boston, to being in the airport, flying in the plane, and of course arriving at a new destination. I thought flying was exciting—we’re going somewhere! And I found airports to be exciting too. So many people, all traveling in different directions. For work, for pleasure, for family, for romance. I would show up to the airport and bask in the pre-vacation electricity. I still sometimes feel this way when I’m at the airport for a personal trip.
On the plane, I liked the views. The snacks. Time to read, listen to music, nap. It was kind of wonderful in the days before Wi-Fi when nobody felt pressure to work in-flight.
But there was one part that always stressed me out a little. Takeoff.
The fact is takeoff and landing are the most “risky” times of a flight. I’ll repeat: flying is still very safe. There is just a lot more going on with the aircraft during takeoff and landing than when it is at cruising altitude, chilling on autopilot. More things are happening so there is more opportunity for something to go wrong.
But this “higher risk” wasn’t what scared me.
It was the noises.
Airplanes are loud machines. The noises that occur during takeoff can be unnerving if you’re not used to them. They’re the kind of noises that, if heard in the car, would prompt a trip to the mechanic. If your refrigerator made noise like this, you’d have it serviced, or consider buying a new one. And hearing these noises in conjunction with the movements of the aircraft just brings it to another level. Especially if there are bumps on the way up.
Now, I don’t want you frightened flyers to go thinking you’re in danger during takeoff and landing. You are not. It is still a far safer mode of transportation than cars. You can tell, based on the news coverage around the world anytime there is a plane crash, just how rare an event it is. (You don’t hear about car accidents in Morocco, do you?) For those of you who get freaked out by turbulence, remember this next time you’re scared of some bumps in the air. Cruise is a very safe time in-flight. The most common negative outcomes of bad turbulence are injuries due to not wearing a seatbelt. You are okay.
Today I’m not scared of the noises on the plane. Within a month or two of working as a flight attendant, I knew them so well that they lost their ability to frighten, instead fading into background noise I barely noticed.
Fear of Flying At Work
Are flight attendants ever scared of flying?
I remember the first time I experienced fear of flying at work.
It was years ago, at least six. I’d awakened from a disturbing dream in which I watched a plane fall from the sky. (People. This doesn’t happen in real life. It is just a dream.) I didn’t take a lot of time to process what I’d seen, as my alarm was going off and it was time to get ready for work. It was not until hours later, strapped into my jumpseat, preparing for takeoff, that I recalled the dream, and suddenly had time to consider it.
Did the dream mean something? Was it perhaps a bad omen? To have it right before working surely couldn’t be a good sign. Is today ‘the day’?
The flight went off without a hitch, and I didn’t think about it again. Until three days later, when the airports agent told us a US government official would be on our next flight. I looked up the person’s bio, thought it was cool having someone of note on board, seeing the agents sitting in the surrounding seats. But once I was buckled in again, ready for takeoff, the dream popped into my head once more.
Shit. THIS is the flight the dream was warning about. Of course! Of course it would be the flight with the important US official that would go down, right?
I don’t know what the psychological term for this is—this stringing together of unrelated events, imagining divine coincidence has conjoined them. Catastrophizing? Future tripping? Spiraling? Whatever the term is, I was doing it hardcore.
Again, nothing happened.
The second time I was afraid of flying was also may years ago, on a particularly windy night. The winds were so high that planes were stopped from landing in Boston for a period of time. Once it became safe to land again, our plane (our little plane, might I add) was the first given clearance to touch down. Getting back to base is one step closer to going home, so of course I was glad to finish the flight. But something about being the first to attempt landing in these strong winds didn’t feel great. Approaching the airport, I clenched my body, said a little prayer, and hoped for the best.
And everything was fine.
Fear of Flying Today
More afraid of missing deadlines than of flying.
Those were two examples of times I was nervous to fly for specific reasons. Now, though it is different. These days when I get scared to fly it happens not after airplane dreams or high winds, or for any reason at all.
Anxiety, I think they call it. Brief, annoying, inexplicable anxiety.
It doesn’t happen all the time. I go months without feeling it—6, 8, 12 at a time. Then one day it happens. I’m sitting in my jumpseat, buckled in for takeoff, when a thought pops into my mind. “What if today is the day?”
I’d be fine if I didn’t think it, because nothing scary is happening. But once I think it I can’t unthink it.
And for the next 10 minutes and 10,000 feet I’m wound in a ball of worry. My body is tensed to stone. My fingertips press deeper into my legs where they rest. My breath takes effort to steady, but I keep it rhythmic, my facial expressions bland. No one can know how I feel inside, because others need me to show it’s okay.
And the thing is, I know it is okay. I know today is probably not the day. I know I’m safe. That everything will be fine. That once we get to 10,000 feet, I won’t feel a stitch of fear for the rest of the day. I know it is irrational fear. But fear can be pretty powerful when it isn’t backed by logic.
For all the months of going about my business, blissfully unphased by takeoffs, by air travel, once these bouts of anxiety kick in, they tend to stick around for a while. It might be a week, or two, or more. Where every takeoff brings my body to fight-or-flight high alert. Where I want to text loved ones to say something nice “just in case”. Clutching, breathing, biding my time until the double ding makes me feel safe again.
The funny thing is it’s so specific. I never think about scary situations while I’m driving to work, while walking through the airport, while boarding. The whole thing is so normal and average, delightfully boring. It is not until I’m strapped into my seat and the plane accelerates before takeoff that the thought pops in. It’s not even a real thought about what “could” happen or worst-case scenarios. It is just a silent acknowledgement coursing through my body that someday something could happen. Why not today?
And then, like magic, the spell is broken with the sounds of reaching safe altitude.
The feeling of doom dissolves as quickly as it started, and I do not consider it again.
I don’t have a lot of experience with anxiety. It’s not something I deal with on a day-to-day basis or in other areas of my life. But it seems strange to me that having such a strong and regular reaction in this way—every takeoff, without fail, until the ‘phase’ ends—wouldn’t seep itself into other moments. Why, I wonder, don’t I start the process of feeling anxious earlier? Why have I not come to feel anxious at the thought of going to work, knowing that I’ll be sitting in deep fear for those long minutes during takeoff? Why doesn’t my body prepare for it by sweating, shaking, elevating our stress level beforehand? And how does it dissolve so quickly? Why does the fear never re-emerge during landing? And what about those months-long periods of calm and unbothered—when I’m not feeling anxious at all? What gives?
Also, where did this shit even come from?
Is it age? Has this fear of flying crept in silently, grain by tiny grain, over the years, surprising me like my fear of heights did in my twenties?
Perhaps I feel the loss of control more acutely now. Perhaps being in someone else’s hands, so dependent on them, doesn’t always agree with me.
I don’t know.
I don’t know that there’s a “solution” here. Other than just getting through it. It takes mere minutes out of my day—uncomfortable minutes to be sure, but not the kind of suffering those with a real fear of flying endure. It isn’t severe enough to warrant medication or serious treatment. It just sucks for a while.
I find myself glad to be doing this job when the fear (or anxiety, or whatever you want to call it) pops up. I have to get through it. There’s no other option. But what if I wasn’t a flight attendant?
With less time on the airplane, surely anxiety would grow stronger. Giving in once or twice, abstaining from a trip, would surely feed the fear. How easy it would be to turn away from these uncomfortable moments and opt for less time in the air and more time on solid ground. And then, how many things I would miss.
I’m happy that my job requires me to get through these moments of fear. Every anxiety-riddled takeoff is one more piece of proof that everything will be okay.
And I really believe it will.
Fear will rob you of joy. Get the help you need and get on that airplane.
I want you to still look to this flight attendant for reassurance when you’re scared to fly. Because everything truly will be okay. But I also want you to know how very normal, and human that fear is.
If you’re afraid of flying, I hope you can do what you need to do to get through the hard moments. But I hope you don’t allow those hard moments to rob you of the joy on the other side. You can do it, I can do it, we can do hard things.
Thanks for coming, I love ya even if you’re never scared of anything. <3
I’ve got some resources for anyone who falls on the scale of a fear of flying. Whether you’re just a bit nervous or deeply afraid, find some information and tips for quelling (or beating!) your fear of flying. I hope it helps!