Tech & Science

'Am I Going Down?' App Tries to Help Anxious Flyers by Telling Them Odds of Plane Crash

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A new app tells passengers on a plane how close they are to death. It was created by a husband who wanted to help his wife overcome aerophobia. Bruce Bennett

When Nic Johns set out to cure his wife's fear of flying in 2014, he never imagined the journey would lead to a wildly successful app on iTunes. The whole thing started as a pet project—something to reassure Julie whenever the two had to travel long distance.

"Really, it was a joint effort between myself and my wife," the London-based software developer and statistics whiz told Newsweek. "We just wanted to make something that would show her and remind her how safe it really was to fly."

Fast-forward three years, and Am I Going Down? has been downloaded tens of thousands of times, Johns said. The app predicts the odds of dying in a plane crash on any given flight, using the arrival time, the airline, the aircraft and other details.

The app also color-codes airlines by safety. The safest airlines are labeled in green, while the not-so-safe ones are labeled in deep red. Johns said he updates the app regularly to keep it current, based on airline safety performance and recent in-flight fatalities. Under the best conditions, the odds of dying in a crash may be as low as one in 20 million. The worst may be may be as low—or lower—than one in 5 million.

Speaking about the app’s success, the developer said he found it “quite surprising. We didn’t do any marketing. It was more word-of-mouth, and it went viral in a way.” Of course, he noted, it’s unclear how many people downloaded the app to assuage aerophobia and how many did it out of morbid curiosity.

“People who have a fear of flying have different responses to fear,” he said. “I don’t expect it to work for everyone.”

Despite the apparent success of the app, doctors actually say it could do damage to people with an acute fear of flying. Gimmicks like an app, or temporary salves like medication, aren’t real solutions. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Newsweek that seeing the data could potentially trigger even more panic in some patients.

“Yeah, that’s really not helpful,” Friedman said. “I would personally like something like that, because I love numbers. But phobias, by definition, are irrational fears. [The app] would force their attention on to the very things triggering the attack.”

Friedman recommends exposure therapy for people with a fear of flying. He pointed out that researchers are studying more experimental conditioning treatments.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of the population reports having a fear of flying. The consensus among researchers, including Friedman, is that the phobia stems from evolutionary forces. Spiders, snakes and heights signaled danger to primitive humans, and those reflexes can manifest in odd or triggering ways hundreds of years later.

Brieanna Scolaro, director of community relations for Behavioral Associates, an outpatient mental health firm in New York City, said people travel from across the country to get treatment for aerophobia (“Most of them come by train”). There’s usually an uptick in referrals and new patients whenever a plane crash happens in the U.S., she said.

Like Friedman, she said the most successful clients are those who go through virtual reality exposure therapy. It takes between eight and 10 sessions to treat the condition, she said, and the bill could be thousands of dollars. 

“There’s no quick fixes,” she said. “Ultimately, you’re just going to have to face the discomfort of that experience.”

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