Ever wonder about what is happening in people’s lives when they get escorted off a plane? It doesn’t happen very often but over all my years of travelling I have seen the odd person and wondered what their story was. As someone who has now had her entire family escorted off a plane I can tell you there’s a whole ton of drama leading up to that point which can take some time to recover from! In our case it was due to one of our children becoming terrified of flying – a very dramatic situation when your home country is 14,000 kms away from your host country. This is the story of what happened to us and how we solved it for our family.
Knowing your child has a fear of flying is a tricky situation to deal with when you are in a country which offers little in terms of typical Western services that you would want in these situations and certainly no child psychologists that specialize in this area. My child had flown frequently since she was 5 years old, but it wasn’t until a particularly bumpy flight when she was around 12 that the problems for us really began. She began to get very, very, anxious whenever we had to fly again, would become increasingly quiet in the days leading up to the flight, unable to sleep and obviously troubled. Due to an unfortunate unrelated accident, we then got stuck in our host country and were unable to fly home for the summer holidays – which my child was thrilled by because it meant we had many many months without so much as going to an airport.
So when it came time to go home for the Christmas holidays it became obvious that we had a real problem on our hands. I talked to a child psychologist back in my home country, got the old Rescue Remedy out of the back of the cupboard, read anything we could find, watched all the videos on YouTube (with the pilots explaining what all the turbulence is etc). After all the preparation my child got onto the plane, sweaty palms and all, and after take off (which they remained clenched to the seat) we ended up having a fairly uneventful trip home.
After a wonderful few weeks back with family and friends our child started to tell everyone that she did not want to get back on the plane and did not want to go back to our host country. We brushed it off as too much fun over the festive period but the day before the flight (when she really didn’t want to leave the house or even the bedroom) we realised their anxiety was a lot worse than on the initial flight. The next morning we could not get her to leave the house, and you can imagine all the tension and drama that entailed when you are trying to get to the airport! After taking some advice from a doctor friend we went and picked up antihistamines from the chemist (n.b they can have a calming effect but it’s not generally recommended – we were pretty much clutching at straws) and after some time, got her into the car and got to the airport. Unfortunately we had a long delay in waiting to board and by the time our turn finally came around my child got half way down the gangway and absolutely would not go any further. At this point the tension between my husband and I was at an all time high, so sad in moments of real stress we often don’t become our best selves, but really we were both completely out of our depth with no real idea what was the best thing to do. In hindsight, I so wish we had been calmer and cooler through the whole process.
My younger child and I boarded the plane, thinking that might encourage my elder child to join us, that she would know the trip was inevitable. It didn’t work at all and the next thing I knew the air steward came to get me and my younger child and took us to the door of the plane. The pilot was there and other crew members with my elder child who had got to the door of the plane but at this point was having a total panic attack and they could not board her. Although they were sympathetic, in order to not cause a delay to the other passengers we all had to be offloaded and our luggage removed. There was something so distressing about the walk back to our seats, getting our bags and leaving the plane with all the passengers staring at us. We had passed back the rental car and said goodbye to all of the family, so taking a taxi back to my mother in law’s was not a happy ride – both children were distressed and my husband and I were in shock. It was one of those parenting moments when you feel completely out of your depth with really no clear idea what to do to make everything alright again.
At my mother in law’s house that night my husband and I had an entirely sleepless night wondering what to do – would we ever get our child back on a plane again? Did that mean that we were now stuck back in our home country? My husband would definitely have to return to his job but would my children and I need to stay? Give up my work, friends, our housekeeper and our dog? How would we get our kids into a school, find a house, find a job all in such a short time frame?
By the next morning I realised this was all crazy and that we needed to find a solution to get her back onto a plane. Lucky for us after a quick internet search we found a psychologist in our home country that dealt specifically with fear of flying. Even though it was still the Christmas holidays this amazing man Grant Amos, https://www.flyok.co.nz/ rang me back (after the cricket was finished) and was so sympathetic and helpful. He spoke to me for 45 mins and eased all the panic straight away. We needed to give my child a few days to work out their breathing strategies, get her back on a plane asap and that this episode would pass. We just needed to learn all the tips and tricks. It helped to know that he had dealt with many other children who had similar episodes and that they are always children of either ex-pats or military families who had flown a lot (who knew that?!). To know you are not alone in these situations was a godsend. The other thing he said is that it is not just one thing that would have been the trigger, that it is a ‘hungarian ghoulash’ of many ingredients (in our case unhappiness at school, not wanting to leave extended family, experience of a turbulent flight, an accident we had in Europe etc etc) that would have all become centered on this one issue. The next day he spent two hours over Skype with my child and I. Three days later we were on a plane heading back to our host country and we have been flying ever since with no major episodes.
Below is a brief overview of the advice we were given and what were the most important aspects to us. We still go through these notes before a flight with our child and I keep all the notes while we travel. To be honest I have found it super useful for myself as well. But just to stress this is only an outline of what advice we were given and what we remembered and took note of – the biggest piece of advice I have is find a psychologist experienced in aviation psychology, that was the absolute key for us. There are many fear of flying programs out there and these people really really do help. I know a lot of people have other things that work for them – so just to stress this is what worked for our family. Whatever you do ask for help and do try and find a solution rather than assuming it is a stage that will pass because it can escalate so quickly.
This is what we learned:
Flying is one of the most novel things you can do. Many things are completely unique in the process: the check in process, handing over luggage, the shape of an airplane. All your senses are stimulated before you board. A turbulent flight can trigger your nervous system to remember all those elements that led to the unhappy experience – so you take all of that anxiety on to the next flight. The anxiety is triggered by the ‘What If’ monster as it doesn’t react to reason or science.
My child doesn’t like heights – so to them the bumpiness of the flight feels like they are falling. 3-4 hours can be manageable but long haul flights can be very difficult. They can begin to hyperventilate so the flight gets harder as the time passes which is why breathing exercises are key.
Do not look out window and do not sit by window. If you have to look out the window look out at horizon not down. We are experts at seat booking now – always check the type of plane (seatguru.com) and book the middle row and over the wings as this is where there will be less turbulence. Pay the extra money if you have to, don’t take any chances on this one.
Breathe. Anxiety makes you take a breath in when you get a fright when you actually need to do the opposite and breath out. To calm yourself when you are feeling anxious you should do the following: breath out through your mouth for four seconds, then breath in through your nose for 6 seconds, then hold for 6 seconds. Then repeat – the 4x6x6 technique. This really really works!!! We practiced a lot before the next flight to get my child prepared and able to remember the steps easily. Have them ready and doing it at each stage on day of flight – packing the suitcase, taking the taxi, at security, customs, hearing the boarding announcement – breathe out and then do the 4x6x6. Breathe out people!!! There were a lot of other breathing exercises we were taught to deal with anxiety leading up to the flight but this is the essential one we continue to use.
We also learnt a lot about the physical aspects of the airplane – and there is information online already about this so I won’t repeat what you can find elsewhere but two things that really helped were as follows:
Airplanes fly because air is a liquid. People can panic because you don’t see anything between you and ground. But there is something there – air! Air acts like a liquid. So if you think planes fly because of the shape of their wing, it is much the same as the sail of a boat being the core element to make it move. Using the boat analogy you can also think that you are ‘flying in there’ not ‘up there’, with the ‘in’ being air, much the same as a submarine being ‘in’ the sea, not ‘down there’. With turbulence when you go up you have to come down, just like waves of the sea, and in the same way that the sea can be bumpy or calm, so can the air. That is such a simple concept that has helped enormously.
It also helps hugely to learn about the jetstreams – especially with long haul flights and going from Northern to Southern hemispheres. Do your research before you fly (Net Weather has a global jetstream interactive map which is useful). When you pass over a jet stream it can get very turbulent so be prepared in advance for where that is going to happen. You can watch the map on the screen in front of your seat so you know where you are in relation to that and it will end the mystery. The jet streams do move with the equinox so take a look before you go. Grant described them as rivers in the sky – and that passing over a jetstream can be like going across the water at an angle (tacking upstream for our boating friends), so it can be tough work and bumpy until you get over it and then you will find calm waters again.
One thing worth mentioning – not all airlines are trained on how to deal with people with a fear of flying (that was part of the problem with airline who kicked us off the plane). Grant said the first flight after the disaster was key and if you have a similar issue I would suggest really doing your homework about the airline you are flying with and working out if the stewards have training in this area. We had an amazing experience on our first flight with Air New Zealand – we let them know as soon as we got to the gate that we had a real issue and they knew exactly what to do. They talked directly to our child the whole time, they got her onto the plane, completely comfortable and distracted, gave her jobs to do to ‘help them out’ and didn’t even close the doors of the plane until my child said she was ready – they were AMAZING. For the first 4 flights after the disaster I told the airline staff, they all allowed priority boarding (which helps enormously) and generally took really good care of her, checking on us all. I wish I had alerted staff in earlier flights that we had an issue as it really made a big difference. One flight they took my child up to the business lounge bar, let her mix a cocktail and put her photo on their Instagram feed – my child said it was the best flight ever and this is literally 4 months after we had been kicked off the original plane!
So here I am today, surrounded by suitcases as we are about to fly off again for a holiday tomorrow and my child is excited to get to a new country and hasn’t once questioned needing to get back on a plane to do so. What a difference 18 months can make! For all of you dealing with any kind of fear of flying issues my key advice is to find a psychologist who specialises in aviation – that is the best thing we ever did to both learn the breathing techniques and also gain all the knowledge we needed to get back on to a plane. For parents of children who are terrified and wondering what to do, do not give up hope – this situation really can be turned around and remember you are not alone!! Once we had this issue I couldn’t believe how many people in our host country said they were also terrified of flying – I really think aviation training should be yet another chapter in the expat handbook!
We don’t usually publish articles anonymously but sometimes we need to in order to protect the identity of the writer for their own wellbeing and safety. This is one of those times. We have also changed some minor details to help preserve privacy.