Mark Kandarski is terrified. Sweat is dripping down his face. Both of his hands are clenched tightly to the arm rests. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was having a heart attack. As the airplane's engines slowly rev up, his hands turn white. The plane takes off. A few minutes later, he looks over at me. I smile slightly. “I kind of hate flying,” he says.
Airplane travel is the quintessential phobia, and it causes suffering for millions. More than half of fliers report some level of anxiety before boarding a plane, and 5% of the population refuses to fly at all. The fear, however, is not supported by data. A passenger’s chance of dying on a plane is roughly 2000% lower than the chance of dying in a car on any given trip. The accident rate on airplanes is lower than two deaths per billion passenger-miles flown. In fact, for most airlines, more people die from heart attacks and other medical emergencies in flight than die when their airplane crashes. Transportation by air is undeniably safe.
But those are mere facts. As we reach our cruising altitude, none of them matter to Mr. Kandarski.
I notice him slightly loosen his grip on the seat. I ask if he can remember when he became scared of airplanes; he isn’t sure, but for some reason he always thinks about TWA Flight 800. “The news reports, they just made me uneasy. I know it doesn’t make sense, especially considering how much I fly, but even with therapy I can’t get over it,” he says. “When the engines get louder for take off, my whole body freezes, every time.”
He is wearing a pink wristband on one arm and a fifty thousand dollar Rolex watch on the other. Something about this man feels out of place. I don't want to be overt, so I continue our casual conversation. After a while, he opens up: “I uhh, I manage a little hedge fund,” he says. He lives in Manhattan and he’s flying from JFK to New Orleans to be with his mother, who is dying of breast cancer.
He can see my curious confusion. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m flying on JetBlue,” he says reluctantly. I nod my head and smile. He loosens his seatbelt, takes a drink from the tiny bottle of water in front of him, and begins talking.
“The reason is embarrassing. I don’t own or fly on private jets because they’re... um..-” he pauses, and I can tell he doesn’t really want to continue “- they’re less regulated than commercial aircraft. I figure my chances of crashing are much lower on a plane with 150 other people than in my own plane operated by a for-profit management company that skimps on safety inspections. I know it’s stupid.”
“What about first class on some other airline? Why are you flying JetBlue,” I ask.
“Well, statistically you’re more likely to die if you sit at the front of the plane, so I always sit in the last row. And there’s no first class in the last row,” he says. "I'm flying JetBlue because it has the best entertainment to keep me busy in the air."
It is true that passengers in the rear of the plane are more likely to survive in a crash. But only by a margin of 5-10%, and only in survivable accidents. The difference might as well be a rounding error, considering the number of crashes that occur each year. Being a numbers man, Mr. Kandarski knows the odds. “At some point, I just surrender to my phobia and ignore the facts,” he says. “I have no choice.”
As we begin our descent, I ask him if his phobia causes problems for any other parts of his life. “Absolutely not. I drive a Prius, which has a big explosive battery strapped on the back, and I rock climb, and jet ski, and all that stuff. It’s just airplanes. There’s something about being in a closed space up here, with no way out, and with no control over the guy in the cockpit that just gets to me,” he says. “Especially taking off. The engine sound... I have nightmares about it before my flights sometimes.”
Despite potentially managing billions of dollars at a hedge fund, and while taking astronomical risks every day, this man cannot overcome his intense and completely irrational fear of flying. It is so serious that he plans his trips around being able to sit in the back row of airplanes -- ”I once delayed an important meeting with a client because I couldn’t get the back row on the only flight to San Francisco.” -- and he declines invitations to fly on his friend’s personal jet.
“I’ve probably missed out on a lot, now that I think about it.” He had to think about it? The brain is a strange and powerful thing.
The moment we land, Mr. Kandarski’s body visibly relaxes. His shirt is covered in sweat, his muscles look sore from clenching, and he generally looks exhausted. “Must feel good to be back on the ground,” I say to him.
“Eh, a bit. Now I have a week to look forward to my flight back. I won’t be able to think about much else,” he says.