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How this British Airways ‘Flying with confidence’ course is changing the lives of fearful flyers

“When they come off the aeroplane at the end of the day, there’s tears of emotion. You hear things like, ‘I’m a changed woman – thank you so much, I can go and visit my grandchildren in Australia’.

Captain Steve Allright is speaking about the British Airways Flying With Confidence programme, for which he is a director and presenter.

He has been flying for 33 years, 25 of them spent as training captain. As a pilot he has clocked up 18,000 hours in the air, and a further 6,000 hours in the simulator – training and testing other pilots. And he brings all that experience to bear during a one-day course to install confidence in fearful flyers.

Commercial aviation is safer than ever: last year, no scheduled passenger jets were involved in fatal crashes.

Yet, says Captain Allright: “All the research shows that one in four people has some kind of fear of flying, and one in 12 has significant difficulties. So there are literally millions of people around the world that have this fear.”

The downsides of aviation anxiety are clear. People may decide to drive rather than fly, greatly increasing the risks to their safety. Or they may simply not travel, cutting themselves off from family, business opportunities and experiences abroad. Airlines, of course, lose business if people are afraid of using their services.

In 1986, two British Airways pilots decided to tackle “aerophobia”. Their initial work has expanded into Flying With Confidence, which now offers online courses. But the mainstay remains the same: a one-day course culminating in a short flight laid on for participants.

There are three parts to the one-day course, says Captain Allright.

“The morning session is a pilot presentation covering all aspects of commercial aviation, and crucially turbulence.

“Having run the course for 30-odd years, we know what it is that people need to know – and we know what makes them tick. So we cover that in great detail.

“We start off with pilot selection, training and testing. It’s something I’m very passionate about. I describe that this is the culmination of two years of intensive training and what goes into that, and I describe it in great detail.

“People come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I had no idea how much training pilots had’.”

“The afternoon session is with a psychotherapist, sometimes a clinical psychologist. These professionals help people understand what is going on in their mind and their body. They get them to understand adrenaline – fight or flight – and why they have shallow breathing, sweaty palms and racing heart.” Anxious passengers are taught techniques to break that cycle.

The culmination of the day is short “there and back” flight aboard a standard British Airways Airbus A320 aircraft. The journey takes about 45 minutes and returns to the same airport – allaying concerns that a one-way flight might have, with passengers knowing they must take a return flight. The vast majority of participants on the course board the flight; Flying With Confidence has a 98 per cent success rate.

“One of the reasons the course works is because the people that come along want to get better. They just need the tools, the knowledge and the psychological techniques to help them get better,” says Captain Allright.

“The reason that I and my amazing team get involved is because we love travel. We love flying. We say in the introduction that we hope that during the day, a little bit of that rubs off on people. It’s a great big wonderful world out there to enjoy.”

Captain Allright is usually accompanied on the flight by his wife and daughter – demonstrating to fearful flyers his absolute faith in the safety of a BA flight.

“It’s a bit of a family affair for us, because they love helping people on the course,” he says.

“I usually sit on the flight deck as an extra pilot, giving a running commentary on all the noises and sensations right from the moment we push back and start the engines. People seem to find that extremely helpful.”

Over the decades, over 50,000 people have benefited from the Flying With Confidence course. But many more than that – perhaps 17 million in the UK – are reluctant flyers, with turbulence a serious concern.

“Our strap line is: ‘Turbulence is uncomfortable, but not dangerous’,” says Captain Allright.

“I actually get them to repeat that back with their eyes closed because that’s the truth. That is one of the 100 per cent reassurances I can give.

“We have the the oceans, which are liquid, and we have this thing called the atmosphere between the planet and space, which is full of air. And that’s where aeroplanes fly – in the atmosphere, a bit like a submarine in the ocean.

“You’re flying through, if you like, a very thin jelly when you’re in an aeroplane. All turbulence is caused by changes in the wind speed and/or direction.

“Know, with 100 per cent certainty, that the aeroplane is not going to break up even in the most severe turbulence. That never happens in modern aeroplanes.

“Turbulence is a normal part of flying. There is this big, swirling atmosphere that sometimes just causes a few little ripples, and it’s perfectly safe. We understand it’s uncomfortable, and I’m not asking people to love it in one day.”

Sophie Thompson of The Independent took part in a recent course. She reported while on the flight: “I found myself strangely relaxed and felt like I’d regained some level of the control I’d been longing for.”

For many of the participants, stepping from the flight represents a life-changing moment, says Captain Allright.

“I do get a lot of people come off and they say, ‘I wish I’d done this years ago – I’ve wasted so much of my life.’

“I say, ‘Well, never mind – you’ve done it now and you have the freedom to enjoy the rest of your life. Enjoy travel. As you well know, it’s just one of the most wonderful things that we can all be blessed with.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to make such a change to people’s lives in one day.”

The next Flying With Confidence one-day course takes place at London Heathrow on Saturday 23 March, price £395. Only a few places remain. Further courses will take place during 2024. On British Airways long-haul aircraft, the video options include a 20-minute Flying With Confidence film presented by Captain Steve Allright.

Listen to Simon’s conversation with BA’s Captain Allright in his daily Independent Travel podcast.