This purser knows all about flight phobia

I met Imke during my internship. She turned out to be an interesting combination of purser and psychotherapist. The first profession she practices at KLM, the second at VALK, an organisation which helps people get over their fear of flying. Flight phobia is very common: one third of all adults are affected to a greater or lesser extent. Imke treats men, women, boys and girls who suffer from forms of flight phobia. I have a background in psychology, so I was very keen to meet her.

Twice as sensitive

At first we, of course, spoke about this great combination. Imke indicated that it certainly brought an extra, at times stressful, dynamic to her life. “You become sensitised from two directions at the same time: on board you can see what’s going through a passenger’s mind and recognise their fear,” Imke explained.

Beating a fear of flying

Imke emphasised that understanding what flying actually means, in practice, can be the first step to recovery. “People who suffer from a fear of flying often have no idea how pilots work. For instance, how they are able to land a plane safely. When you start to explain this, step by step, you are already embarking on cognitive behavioural therapy. In my opinion, this is the most effective way to treat a fear of flying.

Cognitive behavioural therapy, in this context, combines fearful thoughts with the acting out of behaviour related to flying. So, my clients open themselves up to their fear and then gradually move closer to the actual act of ‘flying’. The tools that this therapy provides make it possible for sufferers to recover from flight phobia.”

Causes of flight phobia

Imke explains that people with flight phobia often entertain some pretty unusual notions about flying. In many instances, the fear that the plane will fall out of the sky and crash is not even the source of the greatest anxiety. There are other reasons why someone will not, under any circumstances, set foot on a plane. “What you feel always correlates with what you think. I first find out what it is that makes flying difficult for someone. It might be a fear of being shut in an enclosed space, or of relinquishing control, or sitting next to strangers. All these things can make flying hard for some people. Each individual requires a different approach.”

Training, on and off the aircraft

In her approach, Imke begins by setting a clear target with the (future) passenger. The nature of the target will be different for everyone. For one person it might be sitting calmly in an aircraft seat. The therapy frequently addresses more than just flying. “If you learn how to deal with your anxieties you can use that skill in all kinds of other situations, including in a plane. I’m curious about the medication that some people take to combat their flight phobia. And, um… Alcoholic drinks? Imke says that this is certainly a way to survive the journey, but it teaches you nothing. You simply address the symptom, not the root cause.

I think it must be wonderful to help people fulfil their desire to lose their fear. Personally, I have never been afraid of flying, though I see quite a lot of people around me who are. It must feel terrible to sit in an aircraft with that level of anxiety. I hope it doesn’t stop people from travelling. And if it does, then I highly recommend contacting VALK to help you get over the fear:

Posted by:   Julievanhout  | 
Join the conversation Show comments

Nicholas Brown

I was at the Calgary Science Centre about a month ago. They had a stress test which presented photos of different stimuli. I hardly indicated any stress with pictures of bears, spiders, cougars, but then a picture of a generic economy class cabin came up and my stress levels rose through the roof. I have flown for 40 years and love flying, and was due to fly the next day. I thought about it, and the only thing I felt that could cause this reaction, would be unknown social aspects. Would love to know other stressors on board that never seem to get mentioned apart from fear of flying. Admittedly I’m sure if it had been a picture of a KLM cabin, my reaction may have been different. :)

Martina Helling

How can one beat flight fear? As my father is now a retired diplomate I flew all the time and never had fear, only I was carefull with eating because it made me sick, I found out it was all in my head. But with the years I really got scare of flying without any obvious reason, specially when there are turbulences. At the end the flights most of the time resulted much calmer than I expected. I´m almost 50 years old.


I had been trapped in an elevator last month,20 minutes later, I felt out of fresh air and had difficulty in breathing, no mention that I already had a bad cold. After I been rescued by a policeman I was kind of fear of being shut in an enclosed space and of relinquishing control. And now I’m a little bit fear of flight because of I feel very bad being shut in an enclosed space.

Jackie, Phobia Counselor

Flying phobias are basically the fear of the fear…the fear of
the feeling you get when you are anxious. By distracting your fear initially to allow you to go into the feared situation you will be one step closer. Do girl’s names….A is for Anne, B is for Barbara, C is for Carole or circle all of the 3 letter words in the magazine in front of you. Count backwards from 100 by 3’s. Suck on a strong candy like a warhead or fireball. Your attention will be focused on that and
less on your “what if” fearful thinking. Stay in the present by telling yourself “what is” really happening, not “what if”
such and such happens. Eventually with cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, you can learn
to fly comfortably. There are a lot of good books that address fearful flyers, one is Duane Brown’s, Flying Without Fear. Hope this helps.

Jackie, Phobia Counselor

PS, there are many programs to help fearful flyers in the
United States. One is run by the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center at White Plains Hospital.

Frank van der Linden

Having been a pilot-trainer with VALK for many years I can recommend everybody with fear of flying to do the course. 97% of the applicants will succeed in overcoming their fear.

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