HA! Joke’s on you, buddy; I am a frequent flyer.
Oh, the holidays. For most, it means family time with presents and home-cooked meals and snowball fights. But if you’re like me, with a family hundreds of miles away, you enjoy a more – ahem – tedious ritual known as Holiday Travel. This generally involves selecting a method of transportation, a date, and a ride to and from wherever terminal you’re patronizing. For most, the thought of sitting on a bus or train for nine hours is comparable to receiving fillings without Novocaine, although I’d be willing to bet that a majority would choose the fillings. I don’t particularly like a long schlep on a bus, but there is one element that keeps me a loyal fan of the road: my intense fear of flying.
I am arguably the worst flyer on the planet. My mother attributes it to my subconscious ingesting my dad’s worrying rambles about planes when I was a kid; she, herself, loves to fly and laments that she never became an airline stewardess in the Golden Age of Travel. Because my dad wouldn’t fly, we ended up taking Amtrak from Ohio to Florida when I was six, possibly cementing in my brain that there were ways to get around that didn’t involve scary tin cans in the sky.
My pteromerhanophobia (yay, big, sciency words) wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except I have an ironic love of travel, particularly international. In my senior year of college, my friend Colin and I decided that we were going to go to Europe on a literal shoestring budget and see what happened. I wasn’t nervous about the logistics of getting place-to-place, the laundry lists of unknowns that come with sleeping in hostels, or wondering how we’d manage to feed ourselves. Instead, I made all of the plans with one caveat: if the plane overseas doesn’t crash… When I told the flight attendant on our flight to Manchester, England, that this was my first flight ever, she quipped, “Wow, you picked a good one.” I guess. As a kid, I always said that if I got on a plane, it would be to England, and it was.
Now, flying is old hat. A habit, even. I travel home for major holidays and sporadically throughout the year, mostly by plane. I’ve come to the mental conclusion that an hour or so of pure and utter torture is better than nine hours sitting smooshed next to a stranger on a bus through the icy Pennsylvania farmland. Many of my friends say the worst part of airline travel is the airport itself, but I disagree. I like the rigamarole of airports and don’t really mind security. But once I’m aboard the aircraft with my seatbelt tightly fastened, I’m quickly settling up with my maker.
I know that some of you reading this might have a similar “I-fucking-hate-flying-but-I-force-myself-to-do-it” view, so in order to help you cope during this holiday season, I am deviating from music!!1!!11 and pop culture!!1!1!! in this column. (Though, who am I kidding, I talk about music later. Bah.)
Here are some field-tested tips that help me survive:
1) Have a “thing” you do during the flight.
I’ve been told that a lot of fearful flyers are control freaks. (“What?!” you say, “I’m not a control freak!” Do you always like to be the one driving the car? Then, yeah, you’re kind of a control freak.) I will admit that I have CF tendencies, but flying brings out ALL of them, especially with the knowledge that if the plane’s going down, there’s NOTHING I CAN DO.
That being said, there are some coping mechanisms that I use in-flight. For example, I always keep a book or magazine on my lap to look at as a distraction, even if it’s something I’m not interested in. One of the weirder things I do is grip the tray table when things get bumpy, as if steering the plane, I guess. (My mom told this to a pilot sitting next to her on a flight once, and he said to tell me that, “If the plane goes down, the tray table’s going with it!” Thanks, douche.) I used to obsessively open and close the window shade, but I’ve weaned myself from that, thankfully.
Yeah, these sound weird, but when literally every cell of your body is in fight-or-flight (heh) mode, a distraction and a “thing” that makes you feel better is essential.
2) Talk to strangers.
Okay, this is a little controversial because some flyers HATE this. I’ve sat next to many people who make it super clear by faking sleep or putting in their earphones as soon as they’re seated that they DO NOT want to talk to you, so shut up. If you’re one of those people, I would like to address you directly for a second: If you’re not afraid of flying, you are the envy of every scared person on that plane who forces themselves to do something that, in their minds, equals certain death. Good job.
Meanwhile, there’s a reason the person beside you is asking for the time two seconds after takeoff and leaning dangerously into your personal bubble. They are fucking terrified.
I usually make it a point to tell the person next to me before takeoff that I’m a nervous flyer, and then they can do whatever they want with that info. I try to frame it as “HA I’M A HILARIOUS NERVOUS FLYER AND SOMETIMES I DO CRAZY SHIT SO BE PREPARED TO LAUGH AT ME,” but inside I’m squeaking for help and comfort from this rigid-looking guy in a business suit who clearly does not give a eff.
Once in awhile, however, you meet gracious angels that are understanding and happy to talk to you. Last year, I flew from Berlin to Dublin and was sandwiched inside a group of 20 German freshmen girls on a class trip. I freaked out almost immediately and the tiny pixie next to me was so sweet, and even offered me her hand if I got nervous. Regardless of me being comforted by an 85-pound 14-year-old, it made all the difference in the flight and actually opened up a really interesting conversation about German education. Bonus to #2 – Making friends!!
3) Look at the flight attendants.
Flight attendants are trained to remain calm under all circumstances, and they, above anyone else in that cabin, know when shit’s about to get real. If they’re still pleasantly pouring water from a soda can (seriously though, what’s up with that?) and handing someone a bag of pretzels, even if the plane is dropping 400 feet, you’re good. I try to keep a flight attendant in my line of vision at all times, just for extra reassurance.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask them for help if you’re nervous. I’ve done this several times. On one flight from Chicago to New York, I was fighting panic because the whole flight was just consistently bumpy, like driving over abandoned brick roads in the wilderness. I tried to suppress my anxiety as long as I could, but when it became too much, I pressed the attendant-call button and a cheerful flight attendant came over to just chat with me. (As you can tell, talking makes everything better.) She sat with me for descent and told me that her father never wanted her to become an attendant, because it was a wasteful career. I wish I could tell that girl’s father that she genuinely helped someone that day and he should be proud of her.
4) Read the in-flight magazine.
Though it goes majorly ignored by passengers, the seat-back mag is actually pretty good for an in-flight distraction. I like to read the travel articles and remind myself that, “Oh, Jennifer and Robert took a whirlwind trip to Milwaukee and made it there and back safely – on an airplane! Can you imagine such a world!” Also, don’t bypass SkyMall. Laughing at reading lamps for dogs will make you forget you’re miles above a surface attached to the earth.
5) Have a great, timed playlist.
And finally, the key to pretty much everything in life: music. I was surprised on my last flight around Thanksgiving when we were told we could keep our small electronics on airplane mode for every phase of the flight. Truth be told, I’ve always done that because music is the only thing that keeps me calm during takeoff, my most-hated bit of the trip. My airline of choice used to provide free Sirius throughout the flight, but unfortunately ended the partnership.
Choosing the perfect playlist is crucial. I recommend sticking to songs you know will make you happy and relaxed. I like bright, ’60s pop and always generously heap on Sam Cooke, the Monkees, and girl groups. Steer clear of screamo, super loud guitars, or even the minor key, if you’re really sensitive. It goes without saying, but maybe also leave off Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Aaliyah… y’know. No particular reason…
For a few years, I would keep some songs on hand that were ABOUT flying. John Sebastian’s “Red Eye Express” was always my first play. Not only is the song about a plane NOT crashing, but his voice is like popping the Dom Perignon of Xanax. Follow it with the rest of the John B. Sebastian album and you’re good to go.
When preparing my playlist, I like to time it to around the length of the flight, so you know that if you’re about halfway through the songs, you’re halfway through the flight. I also keep the option to listen to one track over and over; on my last flight, I hit repeat on “Da Doo Run Run” continuously during takeoff, telling myself that, “By the time THIS play is over, we’ll be cruising in the air.” Remember: Flying is all about distraction, and music is something that scientifically involves your brain, so not thinking about being in the air is effortless!
And if none of these work for you, there are professionals who are here to help. I’ve taken this free online fear-of-flying course a few times and it does quell my fears, at least minutely. It was designed by a commercial pilot who seemingly knows how planes work, and in my mind, it makes him only slightly more qualified than me to judge whether the plane is crashing.
Meanwhile, I’m catching a flight tonight, so I’ll be holding onto the tray table for good luck, and God help the sorry bastard sitting next to me.