Anna Senger’s fear of flying began when she experienced a “terribly traumatic” work flight from Israel to Hong Kong. “When I got there, I swore to my husband that I would never fly again, no matter what, and that I wanted to find the embassy to see how to stay there and start a life in China,” she recounts.
The Israeli-born Senger, 34, is a pianist, actress and music director, and her husband also works in show business. The couple wanted to spread their wings by flying around the world and showing off their artistic talents, but Senger’s fear of flying meant exciting opportunities became sources of panic and frustration.
She is one of many who suffer from aviophobia (aka aerophobia), or extreme avoidance of all things flight-related – including planes and airports. Studies estimate that as many as 50 million Americans alone suffer from some degree of aerophobia.
What eventually helped her overcome her fear was an app developed by an Israeli pilot who wanted to understand what makes people afraid of the profession he had chosen for a living.
Alon Pereg, a 63-year-old El Al pilot with more than 40 years’ flight experience behind him (including as a fighter pilot in the Israel Air Force) started working to help fearful fliers after being approached by individuals who sought his advice and encouragement before being able to board an aircraft.
He turned his one-on-one phone calls into a series of lectures, and now he’s trying to expand his reach with the SimpliFly app. Since its launch last July, some 2,450 people have so far downloaded it. He says a combination of success in his lectures and the added fears and sensitivities of flight during COVID-19 inspired him to help make the app.
SimpliFly features a series of videos full of facts, figures and words of comfort for aerophobes. The messages, delivered by professional pilots, offer information with the hopes of changing perceptions of flight travel.
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Senger and her husband first found Pereg on Facebook, and he directed them to the app. She says that SimpliFly taught her that turbulence isn’t a bad thing, and that a two-engine plane can still fly with just one if the other fails. And also that a plane can still glide through the air for a certain amount of time even in the event of catastrophic engine failure.
SimpliFly is offered in Hebrew or English, and opens with a short survey quizzing users on their flying fears and history, plus a video from Pereg himself welcoming users. In the survey, users select which parts of flying are most frightening for them, choosing from the options mechanical failure, weather, turbulence, terror-related incidents or human error.
After a general introduction video, users can delve deeper with videos on such themes as “Weather and Environment” or “Aviation News.” The weather video details the differences between winter and summer weather, and how clouds and precipitation affect flying. Pilots explain that while storms and hail can cause damage to a plane, radar usually helps pilots steer clear of it.
“A plane is like a fish in an aquarium and wind really only affects a plane when on the ground,” Captain Ken Pearson advises in one of the clips. He states facts like “Fierce winds can be predicted in advance” or “Hot water jets are prepared with liquid that prevents snow accumulation on the aircraft,” in an effort to assuage fears.
Last month, Pereg’s team introduced a new chat feature, which allows app users to speak directly with pilots from around the world who are trained to help people conquer their fears.
It’s not just about fear of flying, Pereg says. “It touches deep down to the essence of how people perceive themselves and their limitations and their ability to overcome them. I think more than 95 percent of them can be helped by focused information coming from a reliable source,” he says.
Shira Weisman, 41, became fearful of flying after watching movies that involved major flight calamities. She developed stomach aches when she flew, and worried that she would pass her phobia on to her young daughters. She met Pereg and began watching videos in the app in an attempt to calm herself before and during flights.
“I think this app is amazing because it makes you realize the fear is not real,” says Weisman, who owns international weight-loss company Half Shira. “And you only fear because you don’t understand the many things about flying and the mechanisms of the airplane.”
Though becoming better informed is part of overcoming a fear, other app users say that while they know their fear is irrational, they remain anxious anyway. Tel Aviv resident Michelle Soffen, 33, says she has always known how safe flying is. “I know that driving a car is more dangerous than flying, but at least I can get out of a car if I want to. I just don’t like being trapped.”
Soffen, a media consultant and public policy researcher, says that as a user, she finds SimpliFly’s interface confusing and believes that the in-app videos could benefit from higher production values and better scripts. She compares them to driver’s education courses from high school. “My main feedback is that the content could be more fun and engaging,” she says
According to Pereg, the SimpliFly app is just the tip of the iceberg. His team is adding more chapters to the in-app courses, creating articles and podcasts, and offering mindfulness exercises to help users relax. The team is also using data from the app to help analyze people’s fears. Pereg says he and his team plan to begin analyzing the data soon.
El Al currently partners with SimpliFly and all of its passengers are invited to use the app free of charge for six months, starting from the moment they purchase a plane ticket. Additionally, all of the information is available in the in-flight entertainment system, where travelers can watch the videos on their personal screens.
The app will soon also have the capacity to share information with airlines and alert flight attendants when a nervous flier is on board who may need some extra attention. Pereg plans to supply a 30-minute training video to airlines with specific instructions for flight attendants. He says that while it’s not a university degree, the quick reference checklist will help flight attendants identify passengers’ fears and work with them. The idea is to assist passengers from the moment they purchase their ticket until the moment they deplane. Pereg is first partnering with El Al and then hopes to extend the offer to other airlines.
There are other options for fearful fliers, of course. JetBlue allows fliers to select if they have a medical condition upon purchasing their ticket. When checking in at the airport, fliers can discuss their anxieties with airline crew. Delta makes phone calls to customers who reach out in advance, and has even provided therapy dogs to walk fliers through security. British Airways, meanwhile, offers in-person “Flying with Confidence” courses, which must be booked in advance. Courses cost about $470 per class and get booked up quickly.
Pereg’s co-founder, Hanan Lipskin, says the benefit of SimpliFly is that while other airlines provide services only for their clients, their app is for any user whether they are on or offline, and provides services before, during and after the flight. Unlocking the premium version with the extended content costs from 9.66 shekels ($3.10) per month.
SimpliFly is in its second round of fundraising and is looking to raise $1 million. Pereg invested his own money with financial support from family and friends to get the app off the ground, and believes that offering it to airlines will be good business for those companies – giving them an edge when it comes to attracting customers at a time when COVID-19 is devastating the travel industry.
Lipskin comes to the app from the opposite perspective to Pereg, since he himself is a self-described fearful flier. He cites SimpliFly’s in-flight tips and tricks as a personal help.
One of the tricks he recommends is to put a glass of water on your tray table during the flight. Seeing how little the liquid moves around during turbulence can help fliers gain a sense of perspective. He says it’s reprogramming the brain: a scared flier knows he or she has the fear, but can put it in a “box” in the brain in an effort to control it.
“When you’re in the middle of fear of flight, there are areas in your brain called amygdalae,” Lipskin explains. “The amygdala is a part of the brain that is responsible for how you react, and when you’re in deep fear it doesn’t respond. SimpliFly will not help me eliminate that fear but control it, and know how to react and respond,” he sums up.