Before the most recent flight I took from JFK to my hometown, a 90-minute hop across the state of New York, I asked the flight attendant for a drink. “Do you need a double?” he asked, after seeing my likely nervous-looking face. A few minutes later he brought me a plastic cup filled with Johnny Walker wrapped in a napkin, free of charge.
I have an irrational fear of flying that I usually manage with self-medication, an expensive and not always convenient remedy–gulping down shots at 8 a.m. isn’t exactly ideal. So when I heard of a new (free) app that promises “to relax anxious passengers” from Japan’s All Nippon Airways, it sounded like a healthier and more appealing way to handle my flying anxiety. But can an app really cure a deep, nonsensical phobia?
Taking advantage of the recently relaxed FAA regulations on in-flight cell phone use, various airlines and third parties have developed apps catering to the nervous flyer. About a quarter of Americans have some sort of nervousness related to flying, although only 6.5% of the population has “aviophobia,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The apps aim to alleviate any flying-related stress millions of people experience each year.
ANA developed its app based on more than 1,000 passenger surveys, which determined that most people who don’t like flying experience the most discomfort during takeoff. The surveys also revealed that those people mitigate anxiety with music and distracting games.
With those data points in mind, ANA designed a relatively engaging game with some relaxing ambient noises, hoping to distract players from persistent thoughts of death by plane crash. Players tilt the phone to get a sphere to land on a spot and score points before the clock runs out. “We knew we wanted people to be able to lose themselves in the game,” one of the app’s developers told Fast Company. “We opted for simple mechanics, and tried to make it something people would want to play over and over again.” The music, the developers say, is “soothing without being soporific—finding the right balance between focus and relaxation.”
What distinguishes ANA Flight from a run-of-the-mill mobile game is that it can sense when takeoff commences, by reading and analyzing sound. When it senses the right frequencies, the app pauses the game and shows a takeoff animation.
On a recent flight across the country from JFK to San Francisco, I decided to test out the app. Before takeoff, I started playing the game, tilting my phone back and forth, certainly weirding out my row-mates. Trying to beat my personal best kept me preoccupied. Then the plane started moving and the game stopped to show me the takeoff animation, which doesn’t make much sense: That is the optimal window for something to distract me from my fear of the plane’s imminent crash landing. After a few seconds, the game resumes. But as soon as we were moving, all the tilting, along with the incline of the jet, gave me motion sickness–not a usual affliction on planes, or really any other moving vehicles.
The app isn’t based on much actual research, besides internal surveys, which might explain its lackluster results. Other apps, like SOAR and VALK (“Your in-flight therapist”), that come from more established flight-related stress reduction organizations have the potential to actually alleviate some anxiety. Founded in 1982, SOAR uses cognitive behavioral techniques to help scared flyers. The VALK Foundation was one of the first centers for fear-of-flying treatment in the world, according to ABC News.
Both of the apps cram in a lot of information and attempt to use logic as the main weapon against fear. Flying is incredibly safe; turbulence isn’t a safety issue; an airplane is not suspended in a vacuum, but “borne by a mattress of air particles.” (That last one is from VALK.) The VALK app ($3.99 in the app store) has a “Panic” feature, during which a man with a British accent will calm you down: “Okay, you are scared. You think you are in danger and can’t handle the situation,” he begins. “Stay in charge and put your body as ease… How? Let’s do it together,” he says, before instructing you through various breathing and meditation exercises. SOAR offers more long-term solutions, “courses” that cost at least $20. There’s also a free breathing exercise.
On my flight back to New York, I decided to ditch ANA’s game for these heftier options. At times, the language on VALK is patronizing. The departure tab, for example, opens with, “This is an exciting moment, because flying is full of emotions for you.” Don’t tell me what to feel, app. SOAR takes a more straightforward tone: “Turbulence is never a problem for the plane or for the pilots. Airliners are built the same as planes that fly weather reconnaissance in hurricanes.”
Knowing the facts helped during less extreme moments, when the turbulence felt more like driving over a gritty road than being on a roller coaster. But my body has an involuntary reaction to particularly bumpy rides: My heart starts racing, my muscles tense, my breath gets short. I freak out. It’s hard to listen to reason and logic when freaking out on a plane. Of course, I know that flying is safe; I know that turbulence isn’t dangerous; I know that breathing will help me calm down.
During those moments, the apps each have a useful feature. SOAR has a G-force meter “to scientifically prove that your plane is secure.” The normal force for gravity is 1 G; free-fall results in a zero-G condition. During turbulence that fluctuates as the plane shakes. Plans can withstand between -1G and 2.5G. The meter measures the current G-force of the plane. Even during the scariest part of my six-hour flight, the meter only gauged 1.6. For the less empirically inclined, VALK’s Panic mode, while corny, offers a helpful meditative exercise: Put your hand on your abdomen, breathe, focus on your muscles, not your mind.
The biggest asset of these apps is having something else to focus on while flying. Then again, when the woman sitting next to me offered to share her bottle of wine, I didn’t say no.