Skip to main content

Originally published Monday, April 21, 2014 at 7:42 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Facing fear of flying after Malaysia jet disappearance

An unexplained disaster, like that of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, is what aerophobics — those afraid to fly — fear most

Detroit Free Press


What do you think happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

How you answer that question may have more to do with how you view the world than anything else.

Over the last month, I’ve asked many people about the jet that disappeared. Everyone had a theory at first — a certainty that it was terrorism, a wildly complicated foreign plot or pilot suicide.

But as the weeks pass, people are more humble and less certain every day.

The answer most people give now is “I don’t know.”

But that is the one theory that aerophobics — those afraid to fly — fear most.

The unexplained disaster.

Tom Bunn is a psychologist and former airline captain who runs a fear of flying counseling company, SOAR (

Since Flight 370 disappeared on that routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, his jumpy clients have been begging for a reassuring explanation.

He wishes he had one.

“It is driving people crazy. It’s bad enough there is a crash, but this one is so completely hard to get a handle on,” he says. “People who are anxious about flying just say, a plane can’t just disappear. Then when they realize the plane did just disappear, they start thinking that it can happen to them.

“It’s the ultimate lack of control.”

For those who fear flying, the situation is a trifecta of worries: the mental images of the plane falling out of the sky, the possible terrorism and the prospect that the jet broke or caught on fire.

In ancient times when maps of the sea went beyond the known world, “those sections would say, ‘here there be serpents,’” Bunn says. “We just cannot accept the unknown.”

So with his clients, he tries to examine each possibility and get them to look at things piece by piece.

—Plane malfunction: “Even if the plane was faulty, we’ve been flying the Boeing 777 for 15 or 16 years and it has a really good record.”

—Terrorism: “If it was a hijacking. we’ve got pretty good resources to deal with that. Even if that’s what happened there, it hasn’t been a problem here.”

—Fire: “If it turns out it was a fire on the plane because of cargo they were carrying, what you are going to see is that airlines are going to stop carrying (lithium) batteries.”

—Evil pilot: “I have a problem with this one, because I’m a pilot. Are you really going to fly around for 7-8 hours to commit suicide?”

The most consoling outcome to Bunn and his clients (and of course to the families of the lost passengers and crew) would be if searchers found the plane and the cause of the tragedy.

But in the meantime, every one of us who flies needs to rationalize this event somehow.

I believe that eventually, some bits of the plane will be found or wash up ashore, confirming that Flight 370 was lost.

I do not believe it was terrorism.

I believe something happened on the plane to decompress the aircraft: a fire, hull breach or some other sudden emergency that also knocked out communications.

And here is what else I would like to believe: that the pilots turned the plane to try to land, that they and the passengers lost consciousness and quietly passed away, and that the plane kept flying and flying until it glided under the waves into the arms of the mermaids.

I believe that the event was a rare combination of factors unlikely ever to be repeated.

That scenario may not give much solace to those afraid to fly.

It may be totally wrong.

But it gives me control over my view of flying — the belief that there is a rational explanation for Flight 370’s fate, although we may never quite know it. It also preserves the implicit trust I have in planes and pilots to get me safely to my destination.

That’s what people afraid to fly each must do as well, says Bunn, author of “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying” (Lyons Press, $18.95.) Break down their fears. Handle each one.

Bunn has been over every possibility himself and thinks the most likely explanation for the Flight 370 incident is some kind of fire in the cargo hold, causing the pilots to be overcome by the fumes.

“Still, even if they never find the plane, we could still come up with the most likely scenarios and fix them,” he says. “And we could set up technology to track planes no matter where they are.”

Because that is the most scary thing, even for people who love to fly — that in this day and age, a jumbo jet can disappear.

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

Relive the magic

Relive the magic

Shop for unique souvenirs highlighting great sports moments in Seattle history.


Partner Video


The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►