How to reassure hesitant airplane passengers

The product was an easy sell—a flight from Lethbridge Airpark, near Melbourne, Australia, to the Mornington Peninsula on a sunny winter’s day. The problem was getting the customer, my daughter Sarah, through the door.

Since getting my Recreational Pilot Certificate (Australian equivalent of a Light Sport licence) I’ve taken a bunch of people, including siblings and friends, for a fly but a year after getting that stamp in my logbook I had yet to take either of my two daughters.

Tecnam
Not an airliner, but a great way to see the world.

That changed when I took my youngest, Maddy, 19, for a flight along the coast. I was actually surprised she decided to come up as she’s incredibly anxious when travelling on airliners. But she figured this would be a good way to demystify the miracle of flight.

Apart from a 3000-ft. cloud base, the winter weather brought still air and the odd sunbeam breaking through overcast with stunning effect.

It all went without a hitch until I found myself a little high on final, necessitating a go-around that alarmed her a little, but didn’t stop her from wanting to go up again—mission accomplished.

My eldest daughter Sarah seemed pleased to be Dad Air’s next passenger. Sarah was always more outgoing than her sister and even though she lacks my avgeek genes I was a little surprised when she texted me a couple of nights before the flight saying, “Hey Dad, I don’t want to be the absolute worst but I just don’t know if I want to fly on Saturday :-(. I think I’m a lot more afraid of flying than I realised because it’s kind of been worrying me.”

I felt a little disappointed, but didn’t want to push her so I suggested she should one day come along to the airfield to check things out. To my surprise she agreed to come along that same Saturday to do just that.

That morning brought perfect winter flying weather with barely a cloud and a fresh 10-knot northerly. I was itching to fly, but elected not to mention it during the one-hour drive to the airfield. When we arrived, Sarah actually looked a little excited to see the Tecnam Echo Super and, to my delight, conceded that she’d probably regret not going up before making a determined beeline for the aircraft.

I was little worried she might change her mind as I pre-flighted, but made a point not to rush things or become distracted. Thankfully she still seemed relaxed by the time the Rotax roared into life.

Despite the northerly breeze, we taxied out to for a crosswind takeoff on runway 28, whose blacktop is a little more undercarriage-friendly than 34’s grass.

It’s a longish taxi out to 28’s piano keys—enough time for a nervous flyer to overthink things. I did well not to hurry to this point, but on lining up, in my haste to get her in the air, I pushed the throttle without another look at the windsock and was caught a little by surprise when a gust pushed us to the left as we lifted off.

Sarah
A happy customer on Dad Air.

I managed to contain things quickly enough for her not to notice and as we flew overhead the airfield she declared she felt good to keep going.

It was a little bumpy so I climbed to get above the haze for smoother air. Our Australian Rules football team is the Geelong Cats and I pointed out the light towers of their home stadium; that brought a smile to Sarah’s face that didn’t go away.

I gave her the option of rugged Great Ocean Road or Mornington Peninsula and she chose the latter, which probably sounded safer. Once above Geelong, I slowly descended to 1000 ft. and flew over Peninsula’s ocean sands to Rye before looping around a 1000-ft. hill called Arthurs Seat for a 500-ft. flyby along the bayside beaches—personally reckon this is even more spectacular than flying along the Great Ocean Road.

By this point she was snapping pics on her phone and even enjoyed some banking turns as we buzzed the Queenscliff ferry.

We flew back toward Lethbridge, keeping to about 1400 ft. to stay under Avalon Airport’s Class E. I radioed my position on the Barwon Heads CTAF and again to an aircraft in my general vicinity—that communication seemed to comfort Sarah.

A closer look at the football stadium from 1000 ft. AGL was in order before riding a few bumps out to Lethbridge that weren’t even remarked upon.

The windsock was still favouring runway 34 when we overflew the airfield. This wasn’t the time to practice crosswind landings so I set up for 34 for what I’m convinced was the gentlest landing I’ve ever done—talk about the icing on the cake.

The only downside was forgetting to put the SD card in the GoPro!

I put the aircraft to bed and gave my little girl (OK, she’s a 22-year-old accountant) a hug and told her how pleased I was that she persisted. She responded by saying how proud she was of me and how my flying made her feel safe.

Mornington Peninsula
The views are worth it for a nervous flyer.

As well as a massive smile on my face, I took a couple of key takeaways from that flight.

The first was to recognise not everyone shares our love of flying and to let them decide when the time is right. They’re more likely to entertain the idea if they didn’t feel obliged to go up just to please us.

The second, which should expedite the first, is to always act professionally regardless of who you fly with. Whether you’re their friend, sibling, or parent, your passengers will look to you for reassurance.

This is where your reputation as a pilot is forged—as it turns out a big reason Sarah had a change of heart was that her sister told her how she felt at ease when seeing me go through all the pre-flight checks.

Now to get my wife to fly with me.

Tips for flying with novice passengers:

  • Let people take their time to decide if they want to fly
  • Don’t be offended if they have second thoughts
  • Try to identify any fears they have and work around them
  • Always act professionally and relaxed
  • Don’t rush, especially when it comes to pre-flight
  • Talk calmly when using the radio
  • When appropriate, chat with your passengers like you normally would, and ask how they’re doing
  • Explain different procedures and how things work
  • Don’t practice or demonstrate manoeuvres like stalls or forced landings
  • And for goodness’ sake don’t try stupid jokes to scare your passengers

4 Comments

  • All excellent advice. To your list I would add:

    * Take your hesitant passenger along with you when you do the preflight. Explain everything you are checking. I’ve found that passengers are reassured when they know the aircraft is mechanically sound.

    * Reassure them that you will not be disappointed if they change their mind. I tell my passengers, “This is supposed to be fun. If you are not having fun at any time just tell me and we’ll land immediately.” Part of the fear of flying is having no control. Telling passengers they can end a flight whenever they wish gives them a modicum of control.

  • I have four daughters, three of them took to idea of flying easily and loved every minute of our flights. The youngest however, wanted nothing to do with it. She gets motion sick easily and dislikes flying commercially. She demands Dramamine for long car trips. I told her that I would take her once through the pattern and she could decide if she wanted to stop or not. She agreed! I chose a calm day and as we flew the pattern she was mesmerized looking out the window and excitedly talked nonstop about how “cool” it was. I knew she was sold! But when we landed and I asked her if she wanted more, she said no. I was so bummed, but I stuck to my promise in order to build her trust. That was several months ago and she told me yesterday she thinks she’s ready to fly again with me! So that’s what it’s all about, building trust, letting them be in control, and no pressure or frightening them.

  • A number of years ago I wrote an article for Aviation Consumer which was geared specifically for the reluctant flyer. Yes the above article is very good but the biggest way to create a new flyer is to change their “state of mind”. It’s the noise of the loud engine that scares people away for aviation. It makes then feel unsafe and vulnerable. The quickest way to overcome that fear is to play music if you can afford it and have room in your plane. By giving them a headset that is playing soft relaxing music (ex. Enya) you can overcome anyone’s fear of flying. I’m sure iPods would work almost as well but they do let in a lot of outside noise. I would tell people we will just fly once around the pattern and if they want to land, we will. No one has ever asked to return to the field. Music turns fear into relaxation.

  • A number of years ago, I inadvertently learned of another approach to easing passengers’ fears. I was flying with three passengers in a six-seater twin. One passenger was in the right front seat next to me; the other two were in the middle row behind us. The weather was solid, but smooth, IMC from the time we took off. After we had reached cruising altitude and things were fairly stable, I looked over my shoulder to check on my aft passengers. I shot them a smile and asked how they were doing. They smiled back and gave me a thumbs-up. I didn’t think anything more about it. After we landed, one of the aft passengers came up to me and said she appreciated my look back and smile, as she was feeling very nervous in the midst of all the grey she saw outside. My take-away from this was that a confident, friendly smile and engagement with our passengers can have a calming, reassuring effect on them.

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