After an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed March 10, killing the 157 people onboard, Nic Johns noticed something uncomfortable.
The app he developed, a number-crunching tool called Am I Going Down? that is meant to ease nervous fliers, started getting more downloads. That continued for a stretch of about five days, and average downloads remain up slightly since March.
“It doesn’t sit well with us, but yes there is a slight increase in downloads whenever there’s something like that in the news,” Johns explained in an email. And the aircraft that gets the most searches within his app these days? The Boeing 737 Max jet, which was involved in another deadly crash in October 2018 as well.
Johns’s experience was not a fluke. A handful of therapists and other fear-of-flying experts reported higher sales of their digital tools — apps or video courses — at about the time of the grounding, while psychologists said the plane became a fresh object of fear for those with anxiety about flying.
With concerns about Federal Aviation Administration oversight in light of the Boeing crashes and the fact that last year saw a spike in airline passenger deaths, the news around air travel has been jarring, especially for those who are generally unsettled about flying. The International Air Transport Association noted in its most recent safety report that there were 62 aircraft accidents and 523 fatalities in 2018 — the highest of each since 2014.
It’s not exactly clear how many people suffer from fear of flying; official statistics are hard to come by. But psychologists told the Washington Post the consensus is that about 20 percent of the population is anxious about it, while about 5 percent avoid it completely because of fear. And now an increasing number of travelers are heading to their smartphone’s app store for solutions.
The Netherlands-based Valk Foundation, which operates in partnership with airlines, saw its fear-of-flying-app sales spike by almost a third after the March crash, director L.J. van Gerwen said in an email. There is now about a 4 percent overall increase in sales. Similarly, Glenn Harrold, a hypnotherapist and author based in Britain, says he noticed a slight uptick after the second Boeing Max crash in March. He offers an app, filled with hypnotherapy recordings, called Overcome the Fear of Flying, and he addresses the phobia with the same type of audio in another, “Relax and Sleep Well.” On his website, Harrold suggests travelers cut back on news consumption leading up to a flight, pointing out that thousands of people fly safely every day, but stories about that don’t generate headlines.
Meanwhile, therapist Tom Bunn harnessed his background as an airline pilot to launch Soar, a program he founded in 1982 to help fearful fliers; it includes courses on video and phone counseling. Bunn, whose book “Panic Free” was published in April, says he also saw a spike in people enrolling in the course in March, around the time of the second Boeing 737 Max crash. And months after the grounding, business is still up approximately 15 percent.
The turn to digital tools for flying fears mirrors behavior that experts have witnessed in the past several years as the marketplace for mental-health apps has mushroomed.
“When sort of national, widely publicized things happen that could be triggering for individuals who deal with different mental-health issues, it does seem to push people to search for some additional resources — and digital is a place where they go,” says Stephen Schueller, executive director of PsyberGuide, which evaluates digital mental health products. The site is a project of the One Mind organization, which funds mental-health research.
Consumers may use apps and other digital tools because they can’t get to a professional for in-person treatment because of cost, availability or some other hurdle, says Schueller, an assistant professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine.
But some simply prefer seeking help from the comfort of the app store.
“They appreciate the convenience, they want to be able to do something on their own time,” he says. “It also kind of helps move the care to the place where you need the help the most.”
Schueller, a clinical psychologist by training, says people should read the terms of service of any program and do some research into the product they’re using. And importantly, he says, they should not feel discouraged if they fail to make progress.
“These are just like therapists,” he says. “These tools are not a one-size-fits-all solution, so if something doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t mean you’re not helpable.”