Aerophobia is an intense fear of flying in an aircraft such as an airplane or helicopter. It is comprised from the two Greek words “aero” (air) and “phobos” (fear). It is also sometimes referred to as aviophobia or aviatophobia.
Aerophobia is classified as a situational type specific phobia within the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). This phobia is characterized by an intense or unreasonable fear that is cued by the thoughts or actual experience of flying in an airplane or other aircraft. If a person with aerophobia does get on an airplane, they generally begin have an immediate anxiety reaction (e.g., heart racing, nausea, feelings of dread, shortness of breath, sweating, hyperventilating), that may include panic attacks. People with aerophobia know that their fears are excessive, but will often go out of their way to avoid being in situations where they have to board an aircraft or fly. This avoidance, anxiety, and distress can lead to impairments in social, occupational, and/or academic functioning. For instance, a person may suffer a lot of distress or avoid any situations that necessitate flying, such as going on work-related business trips and going on vacations that require flying.
Situational phobias, such as aerophobia, are often acquired in late childhood to early adulthood and are more common in women than men. The self-reported fears by people with situational type specific phobias are generally focused on thinking they will be harmed. People with aerophobia often report fears of the plane malfunctioning or crashing, fear of severe turbulence, fear of not being able to escape, fear of having a panic attack or vomiting, and/or fears related to being trapped with a lot of strange people (e.g., illness; terrorism). Aerophobia is often accompanied or caused by other phobias or anxieties, such as acrophobia (a fear of heights), claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), mysophobia (fear of contamination), and agoraphobia (afraid they will be in a situation where they can’t safely escape and will have a panic attack). Depression, childhood-onset disorder, substance use disorder, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders are the most common disorders that may co-occur with aerophobia.
A fear of flying is relatively common and while it may be adaptive for people to fear flying (e.g., being trapped in a small space, being at great heights), statistics demonstrate that flying is very safe and much safer than driving and other types of transportation. Media’s coverage of aircraft crashes, recent terrorist attacks involving planes (e.g., September 2011 attacks in the United States), and films such as Flight, Air Force One, and Snakes on a Plane may contribute to the public’s conception that plane crashes and other negative flight-related instances are more common than they are in actuality.
Celebrities and famous people who reportedly have or had a fear of flying in airplanes include Doris Day, Whoopi Goldberg, Stanley Kubrick, Aretha Franklin, Megan Fox, Jennifer Aniston, R. Kelly, and Ben Affleck.
Aerophobia can be treated with standard exposure-based anxiety treatments for phobias, including systematic desensitization, cognitive behavioral therapy, and interoceptive exposure (person is exposed to feared bodily sensations in a controlled environment). It can also be treated using virtual reality treatment and online treatment groups. If aerophobia is interfering with your life, consult a health professional to discuss possible treatment options.
For more information about aerophobia and fear of flying:
-Mentally Healthy article on aerophobia
-Discovery Channel article on fear of flying
– Link to a course by Virgin Atlantic Airlines for fear of flying
-Mayo Clinic article on phobias