Tech by VICE

Aviophobes, Rejoice: This App Could Get You Through Your Next Flight

SkyGuru gives a whole new meaning to airplane mode.

by Madison Margolin
Sep 19 2016, 7:44pm

Even this picture could make you nervous. Image: Aero Icarus/Wikimedia

Are you afraid of flying? You're not alone. Aviophobia, or a fear of flying in planes, affects 6.5 percent of the American population, or about 20 million people, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And nearly a quarter of all Americans and 30 percent of the world's population experience nervousness to some degree about flying.

Amid the latest trend in therapeutic apps, Alex Gervash, professional pilot and founder of the Fearless Flying researcher and treatment center, founded the SkyGuru mobile app to help passengers overcome their flight anxiety. As a psychologist, Gervash has helped over a thousand people through their fears of air travel to the point of even enjoying the flight, he said.

"A fear of flying is not just about lack of knowledge, it's more about the psychology, the emotional self-regulation," said Gervash. "For that reason, I believe that support in the right place, with the right words is the most important thing, more important than just knowledge of what is happening right now."

The app acts like a "pilot" sitting next to the passenger, explaining to them what they can expect and why, even if scary, it's also normal.

The app has two parts: pre-flight and during flight. When the passenger still has internet access, the app delivers pre-flight information about departure, arrival weather, and the predicted turbulence forecast based on the distance between the two cities. It also provides information about aviation meteorology in simple language.

During the flight, the app uses sensors, rather than internet, to continue providing information to the anxious passenger. For example, the aircraft starts in an acceleration run, so the app is programmed to know what the sensors should feel, what noise level they should pick up, and how the pressure of the cabin behaves.

SkyGuru. Image: Courtesy of SkyGuru

"We can determine this is the start of the take off run," said Gervash. "We can recognize using our sensors all those moments very precisely. Then my knowledge as a therapist allows it to say the right words at the right time. It works by prediction and explanation." The app will explain the flight processes to the passenger and tell them to breathe slowly or not to nervously grab onto the arm rests.

"It's very important for [the anxious passenger] to be sure 100 percent all the time that everything is going how it should go," said Gervash.

Developed in Russia, the SkyGuru app debuted in American, Canadian, Israeli, and European markets in mid-September. It's the first app to blend mobile technology with professional aviation data to analyze and predict the flight processes in real time. Having launched already in Russia, SkyGuru has helped users navigate more than 1,800 flights in over 60 countries.

The SkyGuru app uses algorithms that perpetually analyze flight data to make forecasts and offer correlating soothing words for the passenger. To make sure the forecasts are accurate, the app previous flight information, as well as information from the phone's built in sensors, including the microphone, gyroscope, compass, accelerometer, and barometer.

The app cost $450,000 to design and develop over 16 months, and went through more than 300 test flights for testing. It was created in partnership with Taktik Labs, an IT company that specializes in retail services for law, medicine, education, and aviation.

"[The app] gives fearful fliers real-time explanations of what is going on and what they are feeling on the flight at any moment," said flying treatment specialist Captain Kelly Otte of Cordon Dutch airlines. "This helps them feel better, gives them a feeling of care and some degree of control."

SkyGuru is one of several apps on the market that help qualm anxiety. AnxietyFree offers guided lessons and self-hypnosis to ease anxiety, while another app called Mood tracks and identifies patterns in your mood and behavior. But it could also herald more apps that treat specific fears or mental health issues.

Fearful passengers are always asking flight attendants the same question, said Gervash. "Is it okay? Is it okay when the plane shakes? Are those noises okay?" The SkyGuru is meant to provide that same confirmation, psychological support and the the feeling that someone cares about you, he said. Even if that someone is just a phone app.

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