Innovative Spirit

Can This App Cure Your Fear of Flying?

No, you’re not plummeting from the sky. But the SkyGuru app can help explain why it might feel that way, using real-time flight data

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smithsonian.com

If you’re a fearful flyer, you probably know this feeling: it’s just after takeoff and the plane is climbing steadily when, suddenly, the engines power down and the plane starts to fall backwards. Or how about this: the plane is cruising along at altitude when, out of nowhere, you hit an enormous bump and plummet thousands of feet, the wings rattling so hard they nearly come off.

Of course, neither of these scenarios describe what’s really happening. But in the mind of a phobic flyer, normal events—thrust reduction for the purposes of noise abatement and mild turbulence—became exercises in worst-case thinking. If only it were possible to fly with a pilot sitting next to you, to explain what was truly going on.

That’s the idea behind SkyGuru, a new app for fearful flyers (about 1 in 5 of us). The app tracks your flight in real time, letting you know exactly what you’re feeling at any given moment and why (spoiler: you’re not plummeting thousands of feet).

The app’s founder, Alex Gervash, is a professional pilot with a background in psychology. He began helping fearful flyers nearly a decade ago, when he moved to Moscow from his native Israel. There, he met a new girlfriend who hated to fly.

“I definitely did my best to explain to her how it works and how safe flying is and how all the safety procedures are doubled and tripled,” he says. “I just saw that it was not working. I wondered how to help her.”

So Gervash decided to fall back on his psychology education and open a fear of flying school. The Moscow-based program serves about 1,500 people a year. But even after his students graduated, they still needed support while actually on a plane, Gervash realized. The idea for the app was born.

To use SkyGuru, you enter your flight number an hour or two before the flight. The app then downloads information about the flight path, the weather, and the departure and destination airports. It can then start to tell you what to expect from the flight—will the takeoff be a bit turbulent because of weather in your area? Is the runway of your particular airport short, necessitating a full thrust takeoff followed by a decrease in thrust (that “falling” feeling)? If it’s snowy outside, the app will explain the deicing procedure you’re probably witnessing from the window.

Once takeoff begins, you keep the phone flat on your armrest (the app recommends using a rubber band or a bit of removable adhesive to keep it in place). This way SkyGuru can measure altitude, speed and g-force using the phone’s gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer and compass. To explain noises, the app uses the phone’s microphone. To predict turbulence, it uses data from a forecasting service. When turbulence occurs, the app explains what’s going on—are you crossing a mountain range? Are there thunderstorms in the area?

“Something that I say always to all my graduates is, ‘you have to remember that turbulence is an issue of your comfort rather than flight safety,’” Gervash says.

On descent, the app can tell you how likely it is that the plane will have to make a go-around, a fairly common event where the plane abandons a landing at the last minute due to poor visibility or spacing issues between airplanes. While perfectly safe, go-arounds are a common cause of panic among fearful flyers, Gervash says, and can even trigger phobia in previously calm travelers.

The app is still working out its kinks. Occasionally, messages pop up in Cyrillic, a result of the fact that most of the app’s developers are Russian. And the part of the app that’s not in-flight explanation seems somewhat less helpful. An educational section on the reasons behind fear of flying offers that a “lack of emotional intimacy with parents” is often related to phobia development, a theory many therapists would argue against.

Still, there are plenty of books about phobia and its genesis, if that’s what interests you. Gervash recommends all fearful flyers seek therapy to deal with non-flying related emotional issues. But unless you’re actually sitting next to an off-duty pilot, there’s no other way to be reassured that those bumps, dings and vibrations you’re hearing and feeling are truly just a normal part of the flight.  

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