An Air Algerie plane crashed in Mali on Wednesday, killing 116 passengers and bringing last week’s “air death toll” to 450. Reports of one plane-related disaster after another are enough to put even frequent fliers on edge—but the news cycle probably isn’t likely to instill a real fear of flying in anyone, or even to exacerbate existing phobias in the long-term, according to psychologists.
Dr. Martin Seif, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and runs a popular workshop for people who are afraid of flying, told me flight anxiety isn’t usually triggered by hearing about specific events. “Fear of flying is a confluence of phobias,” he told me over the phone. “Think of an airplane as a perfect storm for the intersection of a variety of different phobias. The most common is claustrophobia—claustrophobics don't like the idea of being enclosed—but people might also be afraid of heights, turbulence, terrorism, contamination.” Being on a plane can also trigger social anxiety—“the fear that other people can see you in the confined space.” Most people who seek out Seif’s help are contending with more than one of these issues, and hearing about a crash or disappearance won’t have any impact on something like social anxiety or claustrophobia.
People who fear flying often realize, Seif says, that their phobia isn’t logical. “Everybody who comes to see me says they know it’s safer to fly from New York to Boston than to drive,” Seif said. “They believe the statistics.” (The Guardian calculated that even with the recent disasters taken into account, only about one in 300,000 flights has an accident; only one in three million is fatal.) “They understand that their fear doesn’t make sense. We should be most afraid of things that are most dangerous, but that's not the way our psyche works.”
What about people who aren’t deathly afraid of flying, but are nonetheless unnerved by the news? “People might be more cautious for the next couple of months, but it would be unusual for someone to develop a real flying phobia based on reading about a particular catastrophe,” said Seif.
Tom Bunn, a therapist and former airline captain who runs a program for people who are afraid of flying, says this fear tends to develop based on early life experiences—not the news. “The relationship we have with our parents in the first couple years of life determines whether we are securely or insecurely attached; that relationship gets generalized out into the world as we grow older,” he told me over the phone. “People who are secure in their relationships and in their own skin don't have to be in control of everything, don't always need to have absolute safety, a way to escape.” Although the roots of flight anxiety are planted early in life, the fear tends to manifest later on—on average, Bunn says, around age 27. “If it doesn't happen by age 35, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.
Lucas van Gerwen, an aviation psychologist at the VALK Foundation, which runs programs for anxious flyers in the Netherlands, says he’s seen a “big increase” in calls to his center this week. He agreed with Seif, though, that the spike is likely temporary. “We know from the past that when accidents have a large media impact, it will take about four to five months before people overcome this.”
Van Gerwen believes people are more likely to be affected if a plane is shot down than if it vanishes: Disappearances can’t be illustrated as vividly in the media. “The more pictures and video people are seeing—on YouTube, on television, on internet—the more it increases the fear. It’s a lot easier to identify yourself with one of the victims of the crash.” Bunn, though, thinks phobic fliers’ imaginations are sufficient. “They don't need pictures. They’ve got hundreds of them in their minds.”