Volunteer pilots use their small planes to fly patients across state lines. (Elevated Access)

For most Chicagoans, flying means packing luggage, checking in, security checkpoints, and navigating the mess that is O’Hare International Airport. Pilots flying for Elevated Access, however, have very different travel days.

No TSA. No baggage claim. There might be one employee sitting behind a desk, if that. These pilots are traveling through the country’s numerous air strips and small airports carrying folks seeking care that they cannot receive where they live. 

“The beauty of these little airports is first of all, they’re everywhere,” said Fiona Delta, a volunteer with Elevated Access, an organization that’s finding quicker methods to help people access healthcare.

Since launching last year, Elevated Access has completed 400 trips carrying passengers across state lines to receive abortions or gender-affirming care. Services are completely free and operate on a basis of anonymity to protect patients, pilots, and the organization’s other volunteers.

“We don’t need your passport, your driver’s license, we don’t need anything. So we actually don’t know the identity of the people we’re taking,” explained Delta.

According to Elevated Access’ 2023 Impact Report, their typical passenger is a person of color with low-income, many of whom are flying for the first time.

“It turns out that many of the people we help have never flown in any kind of airplane, big or small,” said Delta. “A lot of the people we’re helping aren’t living in downtown Chicago. They’re out in some tiny little town in Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana, so telling them to drive to the middle of a big city, and get into an airport and deal with parking your car and TSA and all this stuff is very, very scary.”

This organization even transports doctors and staffers to meet the demand of care needed in other states. According to KFF, 21% of abortions performed in Illinois are from out-of-town patients. While local abortion providers and funds have detailed how vast this growth is, numbers in other localities are much higher. About 71% of abortions in the District of Columbia and 52% in Kansas involve out-of-towners.

“It’s crazy that it’s needed and just bizarre that we’re relying on people in little airplanes to get people from point A to point B for abortion and gender-affirming care, that we kind of have refugees within our own country,” said Steven, one of Elevated Access’ volunteers.

Steven read about Elevated Access and immediately felt drawn to the cause. He expressed his “intense frustration and anger” over the country’s political climate and didn’t feel like he was doing enough to change it.

“I vote and I contribute to campaigns. I’m hardly a political activist, but I go to a couple of marches, walk around, and it just felt utterly pointless,” he said. 

He began volunteering his plane and expertise as a pilot in May 2022 as a way to channel that frustration. He said that the aviation community often talks about the “freedom to fly,” as an amenity to living in the country and he’s applying that to help others.

“It just seems that to me, we should be using this freedom to fly to help people whose much more fundamental freedoms, like the freedom to control their own bodies, is being infringed,” he said.

Pilots like Steven not only donate their time, but their money. Steven said his plane typically goes through 10 to 20 gallons of gas per hour, and the cost of aviation gas ranges from $6-8 per gallon. For a two-hour flight, this could cost $120 to $320 each way. Some folks rent their planes, which adds to the overall cost.

Though this private service sounds like an amenity reserved for the rich and famous, Steven said the experience can be anything but.

“These are not luxurious planes. They’re kind of cramped in most of them. They’re loud, there’s no bathroom and the food service consist of, you know, maybe a bottle of water I brought along, with a bag of chips that I have,” he shared.

Conversations between pilots and the people they’re transporting are usually brief, filled with flight safety and what to expect. Elevated Access does not inform pilots of the details of their passengers’ trips. 

“These people shouldn’t have to be justifying to someone, especially some white man, about why they’re making this trip. That’s their business, their choice. They should be able to do this. I’m just the airplane Uber driver that gets them there,” said Steven.

With so many states restricting gender-affirming care, and the ongoing battle for abortion rights, it can be difficult finding the silver lining in the state of the nation. But Delta shares the optimism she sees through this volunteer work.  

“I have been so inspired and encouraged by the generosity of strangers to other strangers and the people they will never see again, they don’t know anything about each other. But for a few hours they come together, one helping another, and there’s no expectation of anything in return,” Delta said.