Simple Flying recently had the opportunity to interview Paul Tizzard, a UK-based fear of flying coach. Paul has been running courses to help nervous flyers overcome their fears since the 1990s, and recently published a book on the matter. Our conversation explored the psychological aspects behind the fear of flying, as well as changing trends in people’s worries.
Becoming a fear of flying coach
Paul has long had an interest in psychology, and his journey towards his role as a fear of flying coach began in the 1990s. At this time, he was working as a cabin crew trainer at British long-haul carrier Virgin Atlantic. A discussion with a friend who was working as a psychotherapist gave Paul the idea of running a program through the airline to help nervous flyers. He explains:
“My friend was trying to push for an onboard relaxation channel, because no airlines were doing it at the time. I was thinking we should do something for nervous flyers, because British Airways had a course, but I thought, at Virgin, with its brand, we should [also] be doing something.”
Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson quickly got onboard with the idea, and has remained supportive of Paul’s work, even contributing a foreword to his latest book. The airline’s friendly, flat structure allowed ideas to flow more easily between staff at different levels, and Paul soon found himself meeting with then-CEO Steve Ridgway to iron out his plans.
After a year of researching the business case for such a program, Paul’s first fear of flying course at Virgin Atlantic eventually took place in 1997. The program began as a relatively low-key affair. Paul explains:
“It started small, and probably had about eight people on the first course in ’97, with me, a pilot and a psychotherapist and a few cabin crew.”
In a pre-online booking era, participants registered for the program by posting a paper booking form and a cheque. Demand for the courses grew quickly, and the group sizes involved soon rose to 30 participants.
Paul remained with Virgin Atlantic until 2019, when he left the airline to continue his work as a fear of flying coach independently. Now, Paul observes that, in a way, he is “competing with [his] own program,” although he says that what he does today is “something completely different.”
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The psychology of fear of flying
There are several interesting psychological aspects to the fear of flying. Paul says that, although it is not hereditary, children of nervous flyers often have a similar disposition. This is because, Paul explains:
“We learn from those around us. Many of the parents that I’ve helped will say [they] cover it up so [their children] don’t pick it up. But children pick everything up, they don’t miss a thing. It definitely often runs in families.”
Having children can also increase a parent’s fear of flying for another reason. This is because starting a family can “make you become more aware of your mortality, and this huge responsibility that you have [as a parent].”
Alongside various psychological techniques, an important way of helping nervous flyers overcome their fear is using facts. Using these to help correct nervous flyers’ preconceptions of flying is a key step towards them better understanding the processes involved. This, in turn, can help them feel safer and more at ease with flying. Paul says:
“Once you get movement [away from preconceptions], there’s a chance that people can let go of it, that’s the approach. So facts are really helpful, because once you’ve got all the facts out of the way, what’s left is the unhelpful beliefs or patterns [that may have previously caused the fear].”
Terrorism as a common worry
The September 11th attacks in 2001 rocked the airline industry on a widespread scale. However, they also significantly impacted passengers’ perception of the safety of commercial aviation. This was reflected in the worries of Paul’s course participants. This is because, while terrorism had always been a theme, 9/11 reflected a change in its potential consequences. Paul explains:
“Until then, the worst that people thought would happen is they might get hijacked. And that was all that was in people’s minds, whereas [with 9/11] terrorists had shown that, actually, if they put the time in and were determined, they could not only get in and take over the aircraft, but [also] do something pretty substantial [in terms of damage and loss of life].”
Despite security improvements made in the wake of 9/11, Paul doesn’t see the risk of terrorism ever completely disappearing. He told Simple Flying that it “always came up [on the courses], as it always did and always will. It’s still a question that, even now, people will ask occasionally.”
Recent 737 MAX concerns
A more recent chain of events that has impacted public perception of the safety of commercial aviation is the worldwide Boeing 737 MAX groundings. These saw the American manufacturer’s next-generation narrowbody jetliner grounded for nearly two years. The groundings came following a pair of crashes that bore striking similarities, and led to 346 fatalities across the two tragedies in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The FAA granted the type recertification in November.
In terms of what this has meant in terms of the worries of the participants on Paul’s courses. He says that it has become more of a theme, and that his clients “do ask about [the MAX].” Nonetheless, its recent re-approval by several aviation safety agencies worldwide has left Paul feeling confident in the safety of the recertified MAX. He states that:
“I’ve heard other stuff about other aircraft as well, the triple seven had some bad publicity for a while, and a few others over the years. These things get investigated and sorted out. I would fly on one tomorrow – if it’s been certified I’m getting on it.“
In the airline industry, safety is always the bottom line. A key part of Paul’s mission is to underline to nervous flyers that all aspects of commercial aviation have been designed and regulated to ensure utmost safety for passengers and crew. With his free eBook Helping You To Overcome Fear of Flying, Paul hopes to bring his teachings to a wider audience. This will hopefully allow even nervous flyers to make the most of post-pandemic travel opportunities.
Have you ever had, or known someone with, a fear of flying? What steps did you, or they, take to help overcome it? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.