Fright or Flight: Seattle-area clinic helps clients who fear flying

Annette Dixon never sets foot on an aircraft without her good luck charms — an alabaster elephant known to symbolize good luck and strength, an uplifting card with personal meaning, and earrings that symbolize 30 years of friendship.

A year ago the Seattle resident wasn’t even sure she’d ever get on a plane again. She had a trip to Africa planned and tickets purchased but she wasn’t sure she should go through with it. Although Dixon was no stranger to airline travel – she had travelled to Europe, Africa, and South America in the past – a flight with severe turbulence and a separate incident involving a bird caught in the engine of a plane made her wary of flying.

But Dixon decided she couldn’t let it get in the way of her travel pursuits; at the encouragement of a friend, she decided to enroll in the Fear of Flying Clinic, based in Tukwila, Washington. The two-weekend clinic is offered twice a year, and is a nonprofit public service program run by all volunteers. Participants receive in-depth information from pilots, air traffic controllers, airline maintenance professionals, flight attendants, and more – including many Alaska Airlines employees.

Bruce David, a volunteer and Alaska Airlines’ director of vendor heavy maintenance, says offering a new perspective of an aircraft and the opportunity to see the way it works up close is calming to many clients.

“We help them through sights and sounds of an airplane, talk them through the movement of flight controls,” he says.

He helps them decipher sounds from the flight deck and uses statistics and examples to show how safe it is to fly.

Behavior counselors are also on hand to help provide tools for participants to manage and overcome their fear. The clinic ends with a graduation flight on a commercial jet, which in recent years has been an Alaska Airlines flight.

Chris King, a flight attendant with Alaska Airlines, has volunteered with the clinic for the past six years.

He says participants range from people who have never flown before, to people who haven’t flown in 30 years or people who have to fly for work despite their discomfort.

Reasons for the fear of flying include a lack of control, claustrophobia, turbulence, and the belief that the plane is going to fall out of the sky.

Pat Frost, former client of the Fear of Flying Clinic and current director, says statistics shows that 11 percent of the US population is afraid to fly. This includes 170,000 people in the Seattle metro area. Many of these people still board airplanes. She says 1 in 6 people on an aircraft are afraid to fly.

The clinic has proven results. Approximately 95 percent of those who go through the clinic leave ready to fly.

“You can’t keep them on the ground,” says Frost.

The clinic can also be a morale booster; participants realize that they are not alone in their fear.

Tips for nervous fliers

  1. King says the number one thing nervous fliers can do is introduce themselves to the flight crew. “Let us know you have a fear of flying and we will do everything we can do to check on you,” he says.
  2. Concentrate on something and meditate during times of turbulence, or when feeling anxiety can also be helpful to people.
  3. Nervous fliers are also advised to attach a key to the end of a string and place it in the seat pocket in front of them during turbulence. The key bounces in rhythm with the plane. People will find the key barely moves, and are calmed to discover that the plane isn’t really bouncing up and down the way they perceive.

To learn more, visit or call (206) 772-1122.

“If you don’t fly you lose your sense of adventure,” Dixon says. “You have to get out of this country where people are a lot different to figure out what this world is about.”