Oct 13, 2022 - Health

Small plane pilots are volunteering to help people get abortion care

Illustration of a health cross-shaped cloud, with a small plane flying by.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A new nonprofit is connecting pilots of small airplanes with people seeking access to abortion and gender-affirming care.

Why it matters: As states such as Texas, Indiana and West Virginia pass new laws tightly restricting abortion access and other forms of care, residents in need of treatment are often forced to travel elsewhere.

  • But car, bus or commercial airplane travel can be expensive, time-consuming and risky for some, making general aviation a better choice in certain cases.

Details: The group, Elevated Access, launched in April of this year, and nearly 900 pilots have at least expressed interest in taking part, says the group's spokesperson, who requested anonymity given the sensitivities surrounding the project.

  • Passengers are referred by other organizations, such as health care providers.
  • Pilots donate their time and expertise, and cover operational costs like fuel and rental fees (if they don't own their own aircraft).
  • They're vetted and required to have at least 200 hours of pilot-in-command (PIC) time — double the Federal Aviation Administration PIC requirement for a commercial pilot certificate.
  • They essentially function as Uber drivers — they're told where a person needs to go but not the specific reason for the trip. "We're the matchmaker, if you will, putting our pilots together with the patients," says the group spokesperson.

Between the lines: Flying in a single-engine Cessna or Piper is typically far more discreet than using commercial aviation — passengers (who can be undocumented) don't even need to show ID.

  • Small planes are also better able to make use of the thousands of general aviation airports dotting the country, meaning people can avoid trekking to busy urban hubs to catch their flight.

Of note: The group's pilots could be exposing themselves to legal risk, given that some new state laws have "vigilante clauses" that could allow private citizens to sue people who allegedly aid those seeking abortions. Harassment could also be an issue.

  • The group tries to protect pilots by keeping their info as anonymous as possible. "We know who they are, but we don't reveal their names and addresses and states and tail numbers," the spokesperson says, referring to airplanes' registration numbers.

What they're saying: "Elevated Access is uniquely positioned to help those facing such difficult circumstances, and help pilots that give of their time, treasure and talent to feel the deep sense of gratitude that comes from doing something for someone that desperately needs us," says volunteer pilot Tim Draeger.

Yes, but: Flying — especially in a small plane — isn't always the most efficient way to get from A to B and back again, so in some cases, driving really does make more sense.

Be smart: Private pilots are often looking for a reason to fly — that is, other than the "$100 hamburger," a joke about spending a bunch of money to go to a nearby airport with a decent restaurant.

  • Other long-standing organizations, like Angel Flight groups, connect pilots with people in need of medical care more generally — or, in the case of groups like Pilots N Paws, help pilots find shelter animals that need to be relocated.

The big picture: As some states make it increasingly hard for people to access abortion and similar care, all sorts of volunteer efforts are cropping up to make it possible for people to get the services they need.

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