Clear the fear and prepare for take off: learning how to fly with confidence

As British Airways steps up efforts to reassure anxious passengers, Simon Calder joins a course designed to calm nerves

The main reason to be cheerful about getting on a plane on a dull afternoon at Gatwick, in my experience, is the prospect of landing somewhere exotic a few hours later. Not on BA flight 9220C. It's going to … Gatwick. And while conditions are calm, this Boeing 737 promises to be an emotional roller coaster for people profoundly convinced they should keep their feet on the ground.

Aerophobia is a dismal condition. Travellers who are fortunate enough to rejoice in the UK's world-beating air-safety record may find it difficult to believe that not everyone is delighted to be aboard an aircraft. But plenty of people harbour deep fears about flying, with tough consequences – feeling unable to visit far-flung family, suffering professionally by declining to fly on business, and missing out on the wonders around the world that aviation unlocks.

"Emotions are far more powerful than thoughts," says Captain Peter Hughes, who has been running the Flying with Confidence programme for 25 years –helping nearly 50,000 anxious travellers. Today another 90 or so have signed up for this latest event, taking place at a hotel beside Gatwick's North Terminal.

By the end of the sessions in the lecture theatre, the participants will learn a great deal. Sessions take you from the Bernoulli principle (by which air flowing above a wing is less dense than that beneath it, which is convenient for getting off the ground and staying aloft) to how to control breathing. Then, from theory to practical: a round-the-houses flight with a skilled team on board to soothe nerves.

This week, British Airways announced a Flying with Confidence book is scheduled to arrive shortly. BA has also loaded a video for nervous flyers on inflight entertainment systems. Yet for Annabel – who works in aviation but was traumatised by severe turbulence during a flight over the Bay of Bengal –there is nothing quite like seeing a real-life line-up of pilots and cabin crew. "I want to be a normal passenger again," she confides.

What she needs is a confident, softly spoken Scot to reassure passengers that stepping aboard a BA jet is about the safest activity they could contemplate. Handily, Captain Andy Shaw is leading proceedings. Yesterday, Capt Shaw commanded a 777 from New York to Heathrow. Today, he has a trickier job: "I want to make sure that people enjoy the flying experience."

The reality is that flying on a UK airline is about the safest activity on the planet. The last fatal event involving a British jet aircraft was in January 1989 at Kegworth, Leicestershire. Since then, around two billion of us have travelled safely.

Yet a significant minority of people (perhaps one in four) are, for their own good reasons, terrified of being aboard a plane. Women are more susceptible, often acquiring a fear after becoming a mother. The media has a lot to answer for, with the popularity of shows such as Air Crash Investigation – and headlines such as "Jet plunges thousands of feet". (Google that phrase, and you get 3.3 million results, none of which involve jets plunging thousands of feet.)

Even confident flyers can take away plenty of useful information. While the angle of banking during a turn may feel like 90 degrees, in fact the maximum is 25 to 30 degrees. Light turbulence is like driving a car over cobbles. Anything trickier is usually avoidable due to sophisticated, colour-coded weather radar: "I don't get paid enough to fly through the red bit," says Capt Shaw.

Lunch is convivial, with pilots and cabin crew on hand to listen to travellers' tales. Sian has to fly because of her work in the theatre, but she hates the lack of control involved in flying. Her coping strategy? "I make myself really tired so I'm knackered when I get on the plane."

To deal with the tangle of anxieties, the speakers include Patricia Furness-Smith, a psychologist who is co-author of the new book (along with Captain Steve Allright, part of the Flying with Confidence team). "Fear is like a bully," she tells the audience. "The more you allow it, the stronger it gets. Today you have decided to stand up to it." She also points out: "Whether you're wearing your lucky red knickers or not will have no effect on how the pilot flies the plane."

More than 100 people, an indeterminate number of whom are wearing charmed underwear, turn up at Gate 55 for the flight. Some participants are joined by their partners (who pay a discount rate) for emotional support during the flight.

A handful of people go no further than the boarding gate. One declines to step over the threshold from the air bridge. Perhaps next time.

Those of us who elect to fly are treated to a journey like no other. Captain Shaw could get a job on talk radio, with his ability to speak non-stop. (He isn't flying the thing, just talking about it.) "All they're listening for is a voice," he tells me. "It doesn't really matter what I'm saying." Yet his commentary is fascinating – explaining every bump and whirr, with highlights from the control tower. "You may be just about to see a 'go-around'," he says, as an easyJet plane approaches the runway while another aircraft takes off. Gatwick has the world's busiest runway, but Britain also has the best air-traffic controllers; the inbound plane does not abort, and lands normally.

As the take-off roll begins, the tension increases – but the cabin crew, accustomed to identifying the most fearful flyers, is on hand to soothe and even find time to serve tea. After the ceremonial letting-go of the armrests – and the revelation that the plane stays aloft – we cruise over Sussex, Hampshire and the Channel for 40 minutes, then come back to Earth with barely a bump.

As the plane taxis to the gate, there are plenty of tears and hugs (in the cabin – not, as far as I know, on the flight deck), plus a sense of elation. The toughest thing these people had ever done was to turn up for the day. Now the world has opened up. "At the start of the year, I couldn't have believed I could do this," says Duncan, in the next seat. "Life is too short to cut yourself off from so many experiences."

Getting airborne

Flying with Confidence courses (01252 793250; flyingwithconfidence.com) take place at Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow; prices from £249 to £279. Virgin Atlantic also runs courses (flyingwithoutfear.co.uk).

The new book Flying with Confidence from British Airways by Patricia Furness-Smith and Captain Steve Allright is published by Vermilion on 7 March, 2013, £9.99.

BA's inflight video is at bit.ly/ConfBA.

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