As you've probably guessed, we love flying at Virgin Atlantic, but we know that for some people the thought of getting on a flight can be a huge challenge. Flying Without Fear, our pioneering one-day course helps to demystify the flying experience and make calm, happy flyers of everyone who comes into its care.
Course co-founders Paul Tizzard, a senior Cabin Crew member, and Richard Conway, a former nervous flyer, both have training backgrounds and have always been keen to shape the programme to be the most useful and pragmatic for the many anxious passengers who take part. We chatted with Paul about the inside story of FWF's success...
Paul, what are the most common reasons for people coming on the course?
Every person has their individual reasons, but they can be roughly ascribed to anxieties around turbulence, enclosed spaces and lack of control. Generally, the proportions are 5-10% who have never flown and 40-50% who flew and then stopped for some reason. The remainder are currently flyers, but they don't enjoy it and are getting worse.
What techniques do you use to help people overcome their fears?
We use a mixture of technical and psychological methods. The technical side involves talks from experienced pilots (who are just brilliant) and removes a lot of the myths that underpin people's anxieties. For example, if people believe airpockets really exist then they will detect each movement onboard as an ‘airpocket’ or ‘plummet!' Once they know that this is a made-up word, they then have to decide what to do with the original fear. On the psychological side, we use a mixture of therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Thought Field Therapy to name but a few. We use as much as we can during the day and hope something will work for them!
Why do you think the course is so successful? What’s the magic ingredient?
Lots of things, but mainly that we care. 99% will have booked because it’s a Virgin course and they expect to be looked after, which they are. All the volunteer staff that give up 2 weekends a month to run it are Virgin staff on their days off. We keep participants in small groups to keep it friendly, with lots of staff around. We don't patronise them and make sure every question is answered before they leave. The magic ingredient is a combination of the Virgin way of doing things, and the fact that Richard and myself both have training backgrounds so we're keen to make the day as fun, relaxed and informative as possible.
Do you have any great post-course anecdotes?
Since we started in November 1997, we’ve helped approximately 15,000 people, so there are many stories. One of the first people we ever helped was able to stop driving to Russia for his holidays and take his pilot licence. I know it’s a true story as I saw him in the background on an episode of The Bill, flying a helicopter!
Have you ever had any celebs on the course?
We have helped quite a few celebs who don’t mind us sharing their experience, including actors from Coronation Street and Emmerdale, and a couple of the Sugababes. Last year, Whoopi Goldberg took part - she hadn't flown for 13 years. She needed to come to the UK to promote Sister Act in the West End, so we flew over to her and spent half a day or so helping her out. She flew to the UK the next day and just raved about the course on every TV show going.
Our own vtravelled team member (and keen traveller), Claire Higgins experienced the course first hand before she came to work with us. We thought we'd ask her a few questions about her own life-changing experience.
Claire, why did you feel the need to take part in the programme?
I used to love flying - everything from arriving at the airport and sweeping through duty free, to taking off and sitting back to enjoy the flight. However, when I was about 21, I started to develop an irrational fear of turbulence which led me to become very anxious about the whole experience.
What made you choose the Virgin course?
After trying hypnotherapy and seeking medical advice, my anxiety was getting worse, rather than better. This was frustrating for me, as I wanted to get my love of travelling back. After speaking to a friend, she mentioned the Virgin Fear of Flying Course. It completely changed her thoughts around flying and after years of just spending holidays in England, she now flies 3-4 times a year. From hearing her and other people speak so highly of the experience it seemed the logical thing to do.
Obviously, quite a few people attend the course at once. How did it work for your specific needs?
The structure of the course meant I was able to hear and speak to the people involved in the day-to-day running of an airline. I was able to ask questions, specifically around turbulence, and I now have a much clearer understanding of what's happening to the plane when it's travelling through different air streams. Being armed with information helped ease a lot of my anxieties and I went away feeling so much more knowledgeable and confident about flying.
How did you feel before and after the test flight at the end of the course?
I was looking forward to it, as it was the biggest test to know whether the day really had an effect or not.
Afterwards, I instantly felt my approach to flying would completely change. I felt calmer on the flight and by knowing so much about the plane, I just felt safe - a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time.
How much have you flown since then and how are you finding it?
Attending the course was the best money I've ever spent, as I am back to loving flying and travelling without fear. I went away 6 times last year and have already planned a few trips for 2011.
If you have a fear of flying and are interested in overcoming it, you can find out everything about Flying Without Fear on the website.
The iPhone app, which has featured on the homepage of iTunes in the UK and USA and remains consistently in the top 50 apps in the UK (Travel category), is available here.
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About the author: andrewAndrew Bowman
Andrew is an occasional contributor to the Virgin Atlantic blog. He lived in the Japanese countryside for two years until he could no longer resist the pull of London's galleries, pubs and clubs. He likes to pretend he can speak Japanese and also sometimes writes about music.