Up In The Air And Terrified

Fear Of Flying Photograph

This isn’t normal. Glasses aren’t supposed to roll off the flight attendant’s table and shatter on the floor. The pilot isn’t supposed to sound so shaky on the flight PA. We’re 32,000 feet over the icy North Pacific Ocean. A butterfly-in-your stomach dip later and we’re 31,800 feet up.

Your whole life is supposed to flash in front of you in moments like these. The big events—graduations, weddings, Super Bowls. And the even more memorable, smaller events—sleepy Sunday brunches with the favorites, Chinese checkers games with the grandparents.

And I did think about all that. Eventually. But at that moment—at the very moment when my life hung in the balance—I was thinking about college basketball. I was wondering if Duke had enough inside presence to survive the ACC. I was thinking about March Madness brackets and why some company didn’t just offer $1 billion to anyone who correctly predicted every game AND the championship game final score.

In my defense: 1) Not even the prophetic Paul the Octopus would win the billion, and the free publicity would be a marketing bonanza. 2) Such random near-death thoughts are not uncommon. One “Miracle on the Hudson” passenger reported all she could think about during Captain Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger’s valorous water-landing was how she never cleaned out her garage.

The plane barreled through another gust. Passengers gasped. I sighed: this is it. Vague feelings of unfilled potential. Things I’d never said. Books I’d never read. Countries I’d only seen on Rand McNally rainbow colored world maps. Then the hodge-podge check-lists of lasts. The last meal I would ever eat was those Biscotti airline cookies and tomato juice. The last conversation I would ever have with my younger brother was my secret trick to baking the best pre-made Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies on Earth (Patent pending). The last movie I would ever see was the in-flight film “Nights In Rodanthe”, starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere –which would have arguably been the greatest tragedy of all.

Nights In Rodanthe Movie Cover

And then calm. Ten minutes later, the pilot turned off the fasten seat belt sign. 30 minutes later, the flight attendant drink cart rolled down the aisle again. And 5 hours later, the soggy McGriddle sandwich at O’Hare that remains to this day the best meal I’ve ever had.

*****

I know. The odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. You are more than 100 times more likely to be killed by a swarm of killer bees. Statistically, you are much more at risk driving to the airport. “Relax,” my dad always says. “It’s out of control. Let it go.”

But flying just doesn’t feel right. And percentages and common sense mean nothing to me when the plane ride gets bumpy. So below are three leading methods I’ve devised to cope with my fear of flying (starting with least effective):

1) The Stay Up The Whole Night Before Strategy: In theory, you will be so tired you will sleep through the turbulence. In practice, you just end up exhausted and terrified. If you’re lucky.

In college I was supposed to fly to Hawaii for Spring Break. I stayed up all night with my buddies, but I still magically made it to LaGuardia. I made it through security. And I even made it to the gate, where I promptly fell asleep. I woke up five hours later to find out I’d not only missed my scheduled flight but the only other one I could have boarded three hours afterward. Due to the Spring Break crush, it would cost $1400 to get on another flight. I instead paid $2.25 for the saddest Subway ride back to school of my life.

2) The Megan Fox Strategy: There’s a lot to like about Megan Fox.

My favorite detail, though, is how she deals with her fear of flying. Megan Fox knows it’s not her destiny to die listening to a Britney Spears song. So every time she flies she blasts a Britney Spears album on her iPhone.

Warning: Results may vary. I have confused many a fellow passenger when I boom “Oops, I Did It Again” on repeat. And I know the lyrics to “Toxic” far, far too well.

3) The American Pilots Are Meaner Argument: In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examined why plane crashes occurred in some developed countries more than others. He found the reason why certain nations suffered more plane crashes lay not so much in technological and quality control discrepancies but “the cultural heritage” of the pilot and First Officer. Gladwell argued there tended to be more plane crashes in Colombia because Colombian people tend to be more respectful to authority than people in other nations.

Essentially, the more obnoxious and blunt the pilot, the safer the plane. If a plane is running low on fuel, a meeker pilot would patiently wait on the command tower to reroute other planes and wave him in. But could you picture a loudmouth pilot from the Bronx being put on hold by headquarters before he was signaled in? It’s for this reason Australia’s Quantas Airlines last fatal airplane crash took place in 1951.

*****

Don’t tell the fine folks at Delta, but I have a Superpower. The rest of the world would call it a technical glitch. My dad and I share the same first initial (K) and last name (Moats). Somehow Delta Airlines fused our accounts and SkyMiles together years ago. So collectively, we have flown over 1 million miles and are automatically upgraded to first class anytime we fly Delta. When I check in curbside, the bag guy typically looks down at his computer, looks over at my passport, and finally looks up at me puzzled. “Business,” I sigh. “It takes me everywhere.” Nonetheless, the K.Moats account has a long way to go before 10 million miles and its name stenciled on a plane like George Clooney. Current estimates peg our Estimated Time of Arrival at 2039.

Thirty years before the Air K.Moats, George Clooney mythologized the rarefied air of the ultimate jet-setter in the overlooked 2009 film “Up In The Air.” He is perfectly at ease at a life in transition in between time-zones, Hilton Hotels, and first class lounges. Clooney is ironically both surrounded and yet (spoiler alert) insulated from his fellow passengers:

Unfortunately for director Ivan Reitman and Mr. Clooney, “Up In The Air” was arguably a) too raw and b) too soon to be truly appreciated by Oscar voters. (See also: c) “Hurtlocker, The”) Still the film offers up one of the most poignant films of the Great Recession across the backdrop of phony corporatism and heartless downsizing. The movie also delivered the 6th greatest flying tip of all time:

6. George Clooney: [on getting through airport security] Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip on shoes. Gotta love ’em.
Anna Kendrick: That’s racist.
George Clooney: I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s faster.

5. Barring a razor-thin connection time, when the plane has taxied to the gate there is no reason to immediately spring up from your seat and grab your bags. You invariably just stand around shifting your weight for 5-7 minutes.

4. Rule #7.315: There’s a 63.1% chance you’ll order tomato juice on a plane. There is a 2.3% you’ll order tomato juice anywhere else.

3. “Man Law” Nominee #1,347: If you’re not in the aisle seat, you’re not allowed to get up to the bathroom more than once. Even the first time is pushing it.

2. Dear Every Airline Pilot Ever,

You realize you don’t have to speak so close to the mic on the PA. We can hear you. Your awkwardly-timed breaths? Those too.

1. Delta Airlines is the best U.S. airline. US Airways is the worst. But Southwest has the greatest flight attendants:

I hope these tips helped. And if you ever see an exhausted, terrified twenty-something listening to “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on your next Delta flight… don’t take it personally.

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  2. adam says:

    The greatest tragedy is that you may have actually watched “Nights In Rodanthe” to write this article. I haven’t, and I hope to keep it that way. Great piece.

  3. Boy Willard says:

    Fun read.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It’s Qantas- “Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services”
    No room for error when flying

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