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How (not) to combat aerophobia

Why a ticket to Hamburg is proving traumatic for a writer who stopped flying four years ago

I’ve managed to avoid travelling by aeroplane for the last four years. I enthusiastically spurn the safest form  of transport. I prefer clutching onto the handrail of a bus driven by a sociopathic grudge-bearer, or hurtling up a motorway while being overtaken by someone  who’s simultaneously trying to find a Jaffa Cake in the glove compartment, or walking through Luton at midnight.

I like to travel dangerously, or not at all. And if it’s not dangerous, it’s got to be physically and emotionally draining; you won’t catch me hopping on a convenient 90-minute flight to Marseilles when I can spend nine hours and three trains traversing Europe with a heavy bag and a bad temper.

But now there’s a seat on a plane to Hamburg with my name on it. I have no choice but to take this safe, speedy flight  to Germany, and it’s weighing heavily on  my mind – far more heavily than my imminent trip to the kitchen to put the kettle on, which probably carries a  greater level of danger. I’ve struggled with this peculiar form of madness since I was  18 and experienced my first flight, a bumpy Aeroflot trip to Moscow that couldn’t end soon enough. In my  mid-20s I said  “no more”, and as  a consequence made a number  of hideous 27-hour coach journeys  to Budapest that were characterised by me mumbling “I could be there by now” from Folkestone onwards.

Flying conflates my two most deep-seated psychological issues: catastrophizing and a feeling of powerlessness. I imagine the worst thing that could happen, become anxious that I’m unable to do anything about it, then make a noise like a distressed sheep. About 10 years ago a girlfriend witheringly told me to man up and gave me a book by Allen Carr entitled The Easy Way To Enjoy Flying. In this book there’s a chapter entitled “What happens if a wing falls off?” which begins: “In all probability you will die.” Despite this, I bit the bullet (and the diazepam) and flew with her a number of times, but the fear always came flooding back. And right now, in the lead-up to my resumption of air travel, I find myself inexplicably drawn to reading transcriptions of black box recorders from crashed aeroplanes. Which is a bit like dealing with arachnophobia by renting the DVD of Arachnophobia.