Small planes and secrecy: Pilots fly people to Kansas and other states for abortions
The pilot, clad in a blue windbreaker, pulls his single-engine, four-seater prop plane onto the tarmac.
The small municipal airport sits in a state where abortion is now banned in virtually all cases. But a short flight away in Kansas, it remains legal. That’s launched a wave of travel from across the South and Midwest in pursuit of pills and procedures no longer legal in many places.
Michael — who asked to only use his first name — is part of a growing group of hobby pilots who have begun ferrying people across state lines to get abortions and gender-affirming medical care, flouting local restrictions and bans. They’re volunteers with Elevated Access, an Illinois-based group that operates with degrees of secrecy because its work falls into gray legal territory.
The flights spare people seeking stigmatized medical care from the costs, delays, and security checkpoints that go along with traditional travel.
“There are tons of little airports like this dotted all over,” Michael says. “I try to avoid the big airports. Usually, we fly into one that’s closer to where they live.”
Pilots donate their time and the use of their planes. Most also cover the cost of fuel, because private pilots can’t legally be compensated for flying. (The group is trying to get an exemption that would allow it to reimburse fuel costs.)
Recently, Michael took a woman back home to the Deep South after an appointment at a Kansas clinic. He loves to fly — he also does volunteer flights for an animal rescue group and he jumps at the chance to take family and friends up in the sky. But he said the Elevated Access flight felt different.
“It’s maybe not the best time in a particular person’s life, or they’re going through a sensitive thing,” he said. “So I treat that with a lot of reverence.”
Only a handful of people in Michael’s life know he’s part of the budding network of people helping women get abortions that have become illegal in their home states. He says some members of his family and some of his pilot friends oppose abortion. That’s not surprising — pilots tend to be older, whiter and more conservative than Americans generally. Fewer than 10% are women.
Soon after Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer and Elevated Access was launched, Michael posted a link to the organization in an online pilot forum. The blowback came immediately.
“It was obviously a polarizing thing to have shared,” he said. “I’m glad I made quite a few pilots aware of it, even if it raised some ire. But I don’t talk about it a lot since then.”
For pilots like Michael, most of whom have day jobs, the flights offer a chance to keep their flying skills sharp while supporting a cause they believe in.
But for people trying to get to an abortion appointment several states away — maybe with just a few days’ notice — private flights can be game-changing.
They can turn a multi-day drive into just a couple of hours, and they can take off much closer to a passenger’s home than a commercial airport. Elevated Access makes the flights free to passengers, who won’t have to purchase an expensive, last-minute plane ticket.
And they’re virtually anonymous. Pilots only know a passengers’ first name and weight (to avoid exceeding small aircraft weight limits).
“We don’t check ID because that’s not part of private aviation. There’s no ticketing or TSA or anything like that,” said Mike (not to be confused with Michael), the founder of Elevated Access. “If somebody feels like they need to use a fake first name, they can definitely do that.”
Pilots are instructed not to ask passengers why they’re traveling. That relieves passengers of any pressure to explain or justify the services they’re seeking. But it’s also intended to give pilots plausible deniability in the face of potential legal threats. Some states are considering prosecuting those who help people get abortions, and Texas has already made them liable to lawsuits.
No existing laws specifically target interstate travel, although Idaho could soon make it a crime to help a minor travel out of state for an abortion without parental consent. But legal experts say flying for Elevated Access still might involve some legal risk.
“You could see an aggressive prosecutor trying to say, under the current laws, that, ‘We are going to charge this pilot with being an accessory to murder or an accessory to abortion,’” said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University. “We haven’t seen prosecutors try that yet. But there’s good reason to believe that’s on the horizon.”
Rachel Rebouché, dean of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, said there’s also a possibility that federal officials could place restrictions on abortion-related travel in U.S. air space.
“This current administration would not try to use federal aviation powers to penalize people who are flying rather than driving,” she said. “But in years to come, depending on who’s elected, an anti-abortion administration could try to do that.”
Elevated Access has completed “dozens and dozens” of flights and is growing rapidly, Mike said. More than 200 pilots have been vetted and more than 1,000 have expressed interest.
“We don’t share our full numbers because we don’t want to become a target,” the group’s founder said. “We want to seem small for as long as possible.”
The flights represent a minuscule fraction of the flood of abortion-related travel between states since many began enforcing bans last summer. But it’s a window into the increasingly scrappy tactics of the underground groups working to keep abortion accessible to people across the country.
Rebouché said it reflects efforts by abortion rights organizations to be nimble in the face of legal uncertainty.
“The threat of passing a law can itself chill behavior — or incite people to organize in different ways,” she said. “It’s an interesting dynamic, how this push-pull of potential policy is shaping both care, but also advocacy strategies.”
Elevated Access works with partner groups like abortion funds to coordinate flights, usually after other options are exhausted — if a patient isn’t old enough to rent a car, or if their commercial flight was canceled.
The idea for Elevated Access arose out of Mike’s experience volunteering with one of those organizations, Midwest Access Coalition, which helps people coordinate and pay for abortion-related travel.
“I wanted to learn about abortion access because I thought pilots might be able to help,” he said.
In the last year, Alison Dreith, the group’s director of strategic partnerships, has connected several clients with Elevated Access. Most have low incomes and some have never flown before.
The organization’s first official passenger flew from Oklahoma to get an abortion in Kansas City, Kansas last summer.
“She was a bit nervous about flying,” said Dreith. “But the pilot was able to walk out into the parking lot and walk her directly onto the airfield. It really feels like a V.I.P. experience.”
Dreith said the flights prove particularly useful for people who don’t have the documents needed to fly commercially. That could include undocumented immigrants — or one of her recent clients, who contacted Midwest Access Coalition in December for help getting an abortion.
“She was in a domestic violence situation where her abusive partner had destroyed her ID and birth certificate,” she said.
Dreith traveled to North Carolina to get the woman away from the house where she was living. The woman thought she was around 16 weeks pregnant — and still legally eligible for an abortion, under the state’s 20-week limit — but wasn’t certain because her partner hadn’t allowed her to get an ultrasound or any prenatal care.
When she got to a local clinic, the woman learned she was just past the state's limit. So Dreith contacted Elevated Access, which organized a flight back to the St. Louis area where the woman was from.
After getting an abortion over the state line in Illinois, Dreith said the woman got help from a domestic violence group and is now living on her own.
“She had been suicidal because she thought she was never going to get out of her situation,” Dreith said. “I don’t even have the superlatives to describe how thankful she was.”
Rose Conlon reports on health for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter at @rosebconlon or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.