Captain Alon Pereg, an El Al pilot, decided to use his knowledge and expertise to help fearful flyers, and came up with an innovative program and a revolutionary app for treating flight anxiety. We spoke with him about this common phobia, the program and app he developed, and his vision to collaborate with airlines around the world.
Tell me about your background and how this idea came to be.
Since I became an El Al pilot in 2004, I was approached by passengers suffering from aviophobia, or fear of flying. Four years ago, the daughter of a childhood friend asked me for help with her severe flight anxiety, and after I helped her get over it, she flew with her boyfriend to Thailand, came back engaged and said to me, you have to do this for real, because it changes lives. As it happens, her encouragement ignited something I was already contemplating, so I sat down and wrote a detailed program, and for the past three and a half years, I’ve held monthly workshops with more than 400 graduates.
Is this phobia that common?
A survey conducted in the US found that one in three adult Americans suffers from flight anxiety. Last November, we launched a more comprehensive survey among adult Americans: it included ten questions, and the first one was, are you afraid of flying? Of 1751 respondents, 41.5% said yes; 25.5% admitted they suffer from mild anxiety, 8% claimed that their fear of flying is significant, and another 8% admitted they suffer from extreme anxiety. You could say it pretty much reflects the overall numbers in the Western world.
Fear of flying is not the most common phobia, but it is the cruelest, in my opinion. Unlike the fear of public speaking, which stems from embarrassment or fear of failure, aviophobia is a fear of imminent death. And these people lose a lot. I’ve had people telling me, if I don’t fly, I will lose my job. There are families that never fly because mom is too afraid.
This fear is also contagious, parents pass it to children, and spouses infect each other. And the irony is that in most cases, it’s relatively easy to reduce this phobia to a tolerable level that skyrockets your quality of life.
So how do you do that? What is your program based on?
I’m not a therapist, so my program is based on lots of experience and the belief that in 90% of cases, the fear is greatly intensified by lack of knowledge, and if people had all the facts straight, they would still be afraid, but it won’t adversely affect their quality of life.
In addition to knowledge, I also provide the support that passengers need, they can text me mid-flight over the ocean, and while doing so I also look at the weather charts and tell them what to expect, which calms them down dramatically, because they hear this from an authority figure.
I provide a lot of information, and it starts with data. If you look at how many accidents actually occur, you find that from ’95 until right before COVID-19, the volume of air traffic around the world has tripled, while the number of casualties from accidents has fallen tenfold. That means the aviation safety is 30 times improved.
I also offer deeper knowledge of aviation. Most passengers sit onboard a plane and do not know what is really going on there, so I explain that even if an engine stops working, there is another engine and we don’t actually need both. I teach them how the systems work, and make it clear that even if I entered the cockpit with intent to bring down the plane, there is no single action I can take to do that. When passengers are provided with all this knowledge, they are still scared, but not as much.
Another thing I do is go over the flight step by step, so passengers know what to expect. I explain, for example, that in the first minute after takeoff the engine noise is greatly reduced, and suddenly it is quieter onboard the plane. Aviophobes are terrified of this moment, because they are sure that something is amiss. That is why I explain to them that flying over built-up areas requires reducing the noise hazard.
With all this knowledge, something extraordinary happens for many participants: after suffering from flight anxiety for years, suddenly the floodgates open. I had someone write to me that after she flew, she decided it was high time to get a driver’s license as well. It really improves quality of life in so many ways.
How did you move from workshops to the app?
We started before the pandemic, but during the course of the year I decided to go out into the world and turn the entire program into a multilingual app called SimpliFly, so I can give as many people as possible the freedom to fly. There are places in the world, like the US, where people feel handicapped if they are afraid to fly. In such a huge country, it definitely impacts your quality of life.
The app is not yet complete, but it has two main features, audio and video, with the whole program in Hebrew and English. One highlight for me is the audio clips that include relaxation exercises devised by my wife, Iffat Pereg, who is a Mindfulness coach.
The audio feature has been integrated with the El AL entertainment system for the past four years, and with no publicity whatsoever, we’ve seen approximately 5000 passengers a month listening to the recordings, which is a lot.
Pretty soon, the app will also include a chat with the pilot, so with a click of a button (and internet, of course), you’ll have a pilot to guide you from anywhere around the world, whether you are still in the terminal and scared of boarding the plane, or in mid-air and filled with anxiety. Another feature we plan to launch in the coming months is a weather map along the route, since many passengers are mainly scared of air turbulence, so if we tell them in advance to expect low-grade turbulence, it will calm them down.
And what is your vision for the future?
My aim is to collaborate with airlines and install the app on their entertainment systems. Since El Al is my home, they’ve had precedence, of course, and they chose to provide the app to passengers free of charge, so anyone purchasing a ticket will enjoy premium access with a link to download the app, even before the flight. All materials will be uploaded to the entertainment system aboard aircrafts, and passengers suffering from flight anxiety will be able to complete a 160-minute workshop or refresh their knowledge. Training will also be provided to flight attendants, so they will learn to recognize and assist fearful flyers, know how to approach them and lend them a helping hand, another significant upgrade to in-flight service.
Until the end of May, everyone who downloads the app gets premium access, and from May onwards some content will be free while other features will cost a nominal fee. The workshop I teach today costs more than $400, and using the app will set you back just a few dollars a month.
We already have a representative in the UAE, and we’ve also started approaching US airlines, since the American market is faring relatively well after the pandemic, and has already reached almost 50% of its previous volume. Pretty soon we’ll be flying again, and our vision is to provide airlines with another competitive edge.