Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016
© Elias Hassos

Fly, children, fly

  • TEXT ANNE-DORE KROHN
  • PHOTOS ELIAS HASSOS

Don’t worry, you’ll be fine! Lufthansa offers a seminar for children to help them overcome their anxiety about flying

Six children sit in a half circle and concentrate on breathing rhythmically – in through the nose, out through the mouth. They’re taming the fear monster. The psychologists had explained that trying to chase it away only makes it grow bigger. The trick is to befriend it. For the breathing exercise, the children are told to place a yellow balloon under their sweaters and hold it in place. Everybody laughs.

The fear monster always comes to Anna, Harvey, Tim, Felix, Lysander and Livinia when they think about flying, about wobbly wings, the crackly announcements in the cabin and having pressure in their ears. That’s why they’re here today. There are muffins and pretzels at the Lufthansa Flight Operations Center at Munich Airport, along with welcome gifts, squidgy toy planes, seat cushions and rubber ducks. It almost looks as if we’re just in time for a children’s birthday party. But the Children’s Seminar for Relaxed Flying run by psychologists Karin Bonner and Franziska Elberg teaches children strategies for coping with their anxieties, and helps them to understand the workings of a plane. They also get to confront their fears by boarding a parked aircraft with an actual pilot.

What Anna is most afraid of is air pockets, of falling – and not being able to do a thing about it. Anna is 10 and had already traveled with her parents from her home in Wiesbaden to Dubai, Thailand and Bali. But on a flight to Turkey, she experienced turbulence for the first time and now refuses to board a plane, even though she would love to visit Japan.

Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

More “courage-building” sentences ...

© Elias Hassos
Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

Anna and Livinia learn to cope with their nervousness in the cabin of an A320

© Elias Hassos

 as heard lots of stories about flying because his mother is a flight attendant, but they don’t stop his fear monster from growing and growing. This morning, he and his grandmother traveled to Munich by train. They have air tickets for the trip back to Giessen, but Harvey is clearly not looking forward to the flight. “It’s important to put into practice what you have learned,”  says Karin Bonner. Her seminars for adults include an actual flight. Children have more imagination, so a dry run is often enough. Bonner is doubly qualified to teach these seminars because she has been a flight attendant for 30 years.

Her colorful scarf gives her a dauntless air and she displays the confidence of someone who has tamed many fear monsters in her day. “Pick up your squidgy airplanes and squeeze hard,” she says. When you experience fear, you have lots of energy, no matter what you are afraid of: a hungry bear, an oral report or flying. Your heart beats faster and your breathing quickens. It’s actually an ingenious reaction your body uses to protect itself because, like an alarm bell, it heightens your senses. But if fear comes at the wrong time, you have to rid yourself of the excess energy, for instance by squeezing a foam rubber airplane.

Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

So many buttons! Captain Markus shows Anna, 10, the cockpit

© Elias Hassos
Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

Don't worry be happy - first of all it's painting time

© Elias Hassos
Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

Anna and Livinia learn to cope with their nervousness in the cabin of an A320

© Elias Hassos
Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

A small foam rubber airplane helps

© Elias Hassos

 There’s a knock on the door and a pilot walks in: tall, smiling, with four gleaming stripes on his shoulder. “Hi, I’m Markus,” he says. Markus Friemer flies an A320 and has been a captain for 20 years. “I’m going to show you what a good plane this is,” he says. But first he explains how it’s possible for an airplane to take off. This involves some physics, but Friemer has two sons and is used to explaining things like horsepower and centrifugal force in a way that children can understand.
He clearly enjoys his task of minimizing their anxieties, and tells Harvey, for instance, that a hard landing is actually good because “we want the plane to sit down properly.” And when the wings wobble, this should reassure them because “wings are allowed to wobble, they’re doing it for you.”

The children write down “courage-building” sentences on round, colored cards, like: “We can do it,” “A plane is safer than a car,” and “There’s something nice waiting at the end.” Some of the children draw four-leafed clovers and ladybugs for luck. Anna adds a football sticker. Her card reads: It’s safe. I’m thinking about where I’m going. It’s normal for the wings to wobble.

They take their colored pencils with them when they go to inspect an actual plane. But before they can board, they have to pass a metal detector – just like before a real flight – and Felix is asked to hand over his phone. The children now find themselves in a maintenance hanger, where aircraft are checked over and prepared for their next flight. Even the adults look small beneath the giant fuselage of an A320. “Before each flight, we have to do an outside check,” says Friemer, adding, “it doesn’t matter if the plane looks dirty, but it has to be in great shape technically.” The children touch the tires and peek into the turbines. A plane is taken to pieces and completely overhauled every four or five years, the pilot explains. That way, it can never really get old. Another courage-building sentence to write down.

Fly children fly Lufthansa September 2016

Learning from the best: Captain Friemer has been flying for 20 years

© Elias Hassos

 They climb up the gangway and into the cabin where the psychologist takes over. The fear monster’s presence is clearly visible again in some of the children’s faces. They do the breathing exercise again, this time without the yellow balloons. In through the nose, out through the mouth, 21, 22. “And now we all squeeze our armrests as hard as we can. And then collapse, like a bag of sand.” The children follow the instructions, their faces serious. Then they head for the cockpit, which is fun. Friemer tells the children that he eats and drinks there, and that he always has tissues lying ready in case he has to sneeze. Anna is allowed to sit in the captain’s seat. “How do you remember what all the buttons are for?” she asks. Each one is different, the pilot answers, “so you can fly almost without looking.” Some of them stick out, others are flat or knobby. All of the children have a chance to use the joystick. Harvey sits down in the right-hand pilot’s seat. When he and Anna both push down on it, a mechanical voice says: “dual input.” “The plane is watching,” says Friemer, laughing, “it’s keeping an eye on what we do.”

Airplane wings are ­allowed to wobble, they’re doing it for you!

Markus Friemer, captain

Harvey wasn’t afraid in the parked plane, he says. “And that’s good,” he adds, with relief in his voice. His grandmother is waiting along with the other children’s parents. They listen to what the children have to say. Felix is impressed by how safe the cockpit is. Lysander is happy to have learned that the window panes consist of five layers glued together. “It feels good to know that there are two or even three of every instrument,”says Anna.

Each child receives a certificate with toy planes buzzing around on it, saying “come fly with me.” Harvey and his grandmother leave straight for the airport. Soon, Harvey will be sitting in an airplane seat again, but this time, he will actually take off.