Phoenix Class Offers Help For Travelers Who Are Afraid To Fly

By Annika Cline
Published: Thursday, June 4, 2015 - 3:29pm
Updated: Thursday, June 4, 2015 - 3:30pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Instructor Ron Nielsen teaches the "Cleared for Takeoff" class at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

Despite all the media coverage of plane crashes, flying is actually the safest way to travel. But the barrage of crash headlines can leave people who are afraid of flying reluctant to board.

One retired pilot is teaching those fearful flyers how to sit back, relax and enjoy their flight at the "Cleared for Takeoff" class at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

Sometimes the fear starts in the airport, before boarding the plane. And sometimes it sets in even earlier.

"I start thinking about it and getting nervous several days ahead of time," said Michele Elliot, who is afraid of flying.

Elliot is waiting with about 30 others to start the "Cleared for Takeoff" class with instructor Ron Nielsen, a retired commercial airline captain. Some are so scared to fly that they haven’t flown in years.

Others are like Elliot, who actually flies regularly for work. But she says each time is a nightmare.

"So there’s times where I’ll drive for three hours instead of get on an airplane. And my co workers have to do that with me so it’s a pain for everyone involved in my life," said Elliot.

The class starts with an icebreaker — say your name and where you’d take your dream vacation.

Then, Nielsen tells it to them straight.

"We are the safest way to travel on the planet. It is more dangerous to walk. You can’t walk across the street or from your parked car at less risk than you can fly in an airplane," said Nielsen.

So, if flying is so safe, why are these people spending their Saturday afternoon in a fear of flying class?

Nielsen said a lot of nervous flyers actively look for patterns of plane malfunctions. And bad news about planes is not hard to find.

"You’ll never see a headline that says, 'Guess what? Yesterday there were 93,327 airplanes that went from A to B and nobody crashed,'" said Nielsen. "But if one crashes, you’ll see it for quite a while."

Nielsen said these traumatic stories get stuck in the heads of people already afraid to fly.

"So the key is, I’ve got to help them do two things — one, get more facts," Nielsen said. "But even more importantly, I’ve got to teach them how to divert their attention anywhere but where their brain wants them to put it."

One coping mechanism Nielsen suggests distracting yourself by talking to the person sitting next to you.

He also said to avoid panicked breathing; he suggests bringing a drinking straw on board and breathing through it.

Next, Nielsen conditions his students by bringing them onto a plane and just letting them explore and ask questions.

"And I say, 'go sit in the back; go sit here; go open the lavatory," Nielsen said.

But the actual takeoff, that’s for the advanced class — a round-trip flight to an airport in Southern California. And, true to statistics, every trip has landed safely.

The next "Cleared for Takeoff" course is scheduled for June 6.

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