Can an app cure a lifelong fear of flying? One anxious traveler put it to the test.

Source: Jakob Owens/Stocksnap

It’s been many years since I’ve flown without the aid of a pill, so I was skeptical that an app could go to bat against my powerful anxiety medication. But the bold claims made by anxiety-reducing app SkyGuru made me curious to see whether a more-sustainable solution for overcoming my fear of flying was possible. (Downing benzodiazapines, or benzos, every time it’s wheels up takes its toll when you travel several times a month.)

The premise of SkyGuru, which costs $20 (the free version is not worth using), is that knowledge will reduce anxiety. The user receives real-time data, even when not connected to Wi-Fi, about the flight, airports, forecasted turbulence and even the planes themselves. The app provides tips and comfort to an individual throughout the flight. For example, SkyGuru might explain standard noises and motions that can occur during takeoff, while disseminating helpful information about the root of flight anxiety.

There's plenty of literature that suggests greater understanding of how planes operate can reduce flight anxiety. “Knowledge of how things work and why can help to reduce all sorts of anxiety," clinical psychologist Stephanie Smith said in an email.

A few days prior to my test trip I had what I call a flightmare: an anxiety dream about airplanes misbehaving in some way. I was not only experiencing my standard flight anxiety, but it was stacking on top of my stress about flying unmedicated. There wasn’t an app for that.

The plan was to use SkyGuru, unmedicated, from San Francisco to Santa Fe. With a quick layover in Phoenix, I’d be in the air for a total of three hours. I started up the app on the way to SFO — you have to load your flight info before switching the device to airplane mode — and it immediately began mentally preparing me for my sky journey with practical tips.

Once on the flight, I positioned my phone flat on my knee. According to the app, the device has to be set flat to be able to identify the position of the plane. Once we reached altitude, I used the tray table for steadiness.

SkyGuru was developed by Taktik Labs, a Russian app developer that creates service-driven apps. So while the app is in English, that Russian background comes through in the language at times. I’m not sure if something got lost in translation, but some of SkyGuru's “helpful tips” were a little grim. The most memorable reads: “The lack of emotional intimacy with parents often leads to the phobia development with age.”

At the very least, I was distracted with the task of remembering whether or not I was loved enough as a child. Fortunately, I heard from Smith that she disagrees with the app’s assertion. “Phobias can develop for all sorts of reasons: previous bad, scary or threatening experiences or heightened, generalized anxiety,” she said. But when it comes to unloving parents? “I have never seen or heard any psychological research suggesting this.” Smith went on to say that attempting to diagnose the root of anxiety was an irresponsible thing for an app to do. I didn't take the "tip" to heart, but it could have potential to be damaging to other users who might.

I was pretty nervous while getting everything situated while the plane was taxiing — takeoff is my least favorite part of flying. But SkyGuru was sending me new messages at such a frequency that I was pretty focused on my phone instead of the plane. It told me that the weather was ideal for flying and that the runway was more than long enough for the plane I was in. I learned all about how takeoffs work, including which direction my plane would likely turn. All of this felt pretty soothing, almost as if the app was able to read all of my fears, making them dissipate one by one.

Right before takeoff, I was shocked to find my anxiety reducing on the spot. It wasn’t something I even needed to reflect upon, because I could feel it. Sure, I’ve been told over and over what it sounds like when landing gear retracts and how lift isn’t actually magic but physics. But to have the information shared with me, empathetically, over a reasonable timeframe ensured that I actually absorbed it instead of adding it to a useless ball of jumbled panic. Sometimes people can get so wrapped up in their disbelief about how much flying scares me that they make me feel embarrassed about it, but SkyGuru’s non-judgmental robot logic never once made me feel shame.

Suddenly, we were at the top of the runway — the moment of truth was imminent. Familiar symptoms of anxiety set in, my fingers digging into the armrests. As if on cue, SkyGuru popped up with a message that read, “Control yourself rather than the airplane,” and suggested I relax my hands and focus on taking deep breaths, which has been shown to reduce the panicky feelings. Having that reminder at such a critical juncture kept me from reaching the boiling point that I desperately feared.

SkyGuru behaved similarly during the flight, as if predicting all my worries, even throwing in a few tidbits about what I might be seeing out the window, which was fun. Knowing how few degrees the plane was actually shifting during turbulence was comforting as well.

The app was surprisingly helpful, but it has its shortcomings. It drained my phone battery, and since these particular flights had no outlets, I had some extra worry about how I’d keep the app functional — not to mention needing my phone upon landing. And because it's incompatible with music apps, I wasn't able to tune in to soothing music — one of my most trusted techniques for stress relief. I didn’t like having to pick between the two, as I felt they could have enhanced each other.

SkyGuru didn’t bring me to a state of nirvana, but having it as a resource reduced my anxiety level to a point where I knew I wasn’t going to panic. That in itself was a major improvement. Even mid-flight to Santa Fe, when the captain had the flight attendants sit down because of inclement weather, the app reminded me that turbulence is a comfort issue, not a safety one, cooling me down.

Alleviating flight anxiety is a different journey for everyone who experiences it. But the fact that I felt my worries subdued makes me think this could be a helpful tool for other people, too. Plus, a $20 app is less than a single bottle of benzos.