Why we shouldn't fear flying after the Southwest Airlines accident

Elise Solé

The death of a person on a Southwest Airlines flight has triggered many on social media who struggle with a fear of flying.

On Tuesday, flight 1380 traveling from New York City to Dallas, Texas, carrying 144 passengers and five crew members, experienced engine failure, causing the plane to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia.   

The plan blew an engine at 32,000 feet and got hit by shrapnel that smashed a window, setting off a desperate scramble by passengers to save a woman from getting sucked out. Passengers dragged the woman - now identified as mother-of-two Jennifer Riordan - back in as the sudden decompression of the cabin pulled her part way through the opening, but she was gravely injured.

"The plane smelled like smoke. There was ash coming through the ventilation system. We started dropping. Some of the crew couldn’t hold back their horror. And some were crying as they looked out through the open window onto the engine," passenger Matt Tranchin told Philadelphia news station WPVI.

SouthWest Airlines Flight 1380 experienced 'engine failure'. Photo: Getty

As photos and witness accounts spread online, so did people’s fear of flying. 

The event is completely unimaginable and is the first deadly accident on a US passenger airline flight since 2009. It’s also the first fatality on a major US airline since 2001 when American Airlines flight 587 traveling from New York to the Dominican Republic crashed shortly after take-off, killing 260 people, per the New York Daily News.

Captain Tom Bunn, a retired airline pilot of 30 years, and the author of Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment For Fear Of Flying, says about 33 per cent of people have a fear of flying.
“And of those people, half struggle to fly and half don’t fly at all,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

It's the first US airline death since 2009. Photo: Getty

There’s no universal cause of flying anxiety, but Bunn says coping mechanisms are linked to birth.

“When a baby cries, its amygdala, the part of the brain that handles stress, is activated, and is only soothed by its caretaker’s face, voice, and touch,” he says.

“Over time, babies learn to calm down by anticipating their parent’s response, which is similar to the relief many experiences while the plane descends to the ground. The so-called danger is still present because the plane is in motion, but the anticipation of landing feels soothing.”

Triggering anxiety is often a lack of control or an inability to escape danger, two factors one must accept when boarding a plane. Curiously, many people develop a fear of flying around age 27 when brain development has fully matured and the youthful assumption that one is invincible fizzles.

Bunn can only speculate what occurred on Southwest Flight 1380 but one possibility is that the engine cowling (the cover) loosened.

“During engine repair, the cowling is loosened and when the work is complete, it’s closed,” he says. “But if a person didn’t lock it properly or the cowling lock is worn, it can fly off.

“It’s happened hundreds of times, but until now, hasn’t caused fatalities.”

The woman was sucked out of the window due to the drop in air pressure. Photo: Getty

Bunn surmises that if the cowling flew off and hit the plane’s plexiglass window, the incoming wind would suck the air - and anyone in its path - through the window.

Debunking common flying myths can help ease worry. “For example, turbulence won’t cause a crash and represents only a tiny fraction of what planes can handle,” he says.

Also, shaky wings during flying are completely normal.

A plane’s wings can survive turbulence 50 percent stronger than the worst that’s ever been encountered before breaking, writes CBS MoneyWatch.

In order to absorb all that force, the wings are built like giant springs. If they were rigid and unyielding, it would take a lot less wind power for them to snap off - not something you want happening at 30,000 feet.

“If you stood on a step ladder, you could bend the plane’s wings with your hands,” adds Buns.

Requesting to meet the pilot before take-off or disclosing your fears to the flight crew may also build a support system before anxiety mounts, and sitting near the wings can reduce the impact of turbulence.

“In most cases, when passengers feel nervous,” says Bunn, “the pilot is cheerfully flying the plane. The job can be pretty uneventful.”

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