There’s something that doesn’t feel quite right about getting into a long metal tube as it turns its nose northwards and jets up into the air.
Whether you’ve experienced an emergency landing, a bit of bad turbulence, or simply can’t get your head around how the aircraft goes up or down without feeling a bit anxious, Virgin Australia is here to hold your hand.
17 per cent of people say they have “high levels” of anxiety when flying. And despite Virgin consistently featuring in the world’s top 20 safest airlines, 11 per cent of people who fly with us also feel high anxiety levels.
That means around 2,600 people across Virgin Australia's network every day may feel distressed during their journey. They may feel terrified and alone, crying, having panic attacks.
Given this, Virgin Australia thought they should do something to help flyers enjoy getting on a plane more. After all, if they can improve any element of the trip, it seems like a no-brainer.
James Koerbin, strategy and operations specialist at Virgin Australia, says: “We asked our anxious travellers to identify things we did that triggered anxiety, using feedback to fine-tune policies and procedures and limit these instances as much as possible. The absence of these triggers might be something guests don’t notice - but that in itself will be the mark of success.”
He explains that we’re in a time where mental wellbeing is red hot – there is increasing recognition for the need to support the social and emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities, and to adopt a more holistic view of health. “With this in mind, we undertook research to understand the mental state of our guests across their journey with us.”
The key challenge faced by Virgin Australia was the difficulty in knowing who might need assistance. Other than emotional support animals, globally there are very few mechanisms to support the mental wellbeing of airline passengers. By introducing a way for anxious travellers to self-identify, Virgin can deliver a Virgin experience curated to reduce anxiety among the most anxious guests.
Koerbin says: “We know that some guests feel uneasy about alerting crew that they’re feeling anxious, and that there were opportunities to assist guests prior to stepping onboard our aircraft. We created a new Specific Assistance Request code (which we’ve called SSR LOVE), which allowed guests to identify as being an Anxious Flyer when making a reservation or post-booking. In the backend, this places the code against their name within the reservation, triggering a number of items to assist.”
Included in this support package is a pre-departure email. This includes the detailed technical information that only an airline could really provide. This includes things like “what turbulence is” or “what’s involved with a daily engineering inspection.”
Koerbin says: "Another desire was for tips on managing anxiety, including mindfulness and breathing exercises. We’ve worked with our mental health community partners and technical staff to create a monthly content calendar, providing new articles and videos each month on these two key focus areas which are then highlighted in our email to guests.”
There’s also a reassuring pre-departure text, and in-flight, crew members introduce themselves to anxious fliers. “A key part of our research showed that some guests were nervous about pressing the call bell or didn’t want to bother crew, so this interaction is very much about reassuring the guest that we’re here for them and ‘giving them permission’ to talk to us.”
This is just the start of Virgin Australia’s plan to help support the mental wellbeing of those who fly.
Koerbin says: "People across the world are missing out on the joys travel can bring to their lives due to anxiety. It’s our hope that a programme like this will enable our most anxious guests to better engage with their world through providing them with the support they need to find delight in stepping aboard one of our aircraft.
“As the experts in flying, we thought who better to take a crack at the challenge than a Virgin airline – and a move we hope will be a first step in transforming the way the aviation industry supports the mental wellbeing of passengers.”