Too Old To Fly?

by Robert McGarvey

When are you too old to fly?

The question is getting asked. We are living longer, many of us still want to see the world around us, many companies – and definitely universities – are keeping older employees on staff and active, and the upshot is that seniors are still on the road, both in pursuit of personal bucket list destinations and also as traditional business travelers.

At the other end of the age spectrum, just about all carriers have restrictions on kids flying solo. Delta, for instance, won’t allow children younger than five to fly alone and it won’t allow unaccompanied minors on redeye flights (except for those originating in Alaska or Hawaii or connecting with international flights). At least some airlines require children to be declared as unaccompanied minors – who receive special supervision, for a fee.

Now the question is beginning to pop up: what about seniors? Should there be limitations on their travels? Possibly including special fees?

Understand, this is a Pogo moment where they are me. I am not pointing fingers at others.

A trigger for this inquiry is that lately I have heard more stories from friends – also leading edge Baby Boomers – about how hard travel has gotten for them, how jet lag lasts longer, how more medical issues seem to crop up when far from home. Are these anomalies? Or part of a broader trend?

Let’s start by removing the elephant from this cabin and that’s cognitive impairment (Alzheimer’s etc). I know a 60 year-old with tragically profound cognitive impairment. I know many people in their 80s who are as clever as they were at half the age. Those with cognitive impairment bring significant challenges to the travel experience. There also are no blanket prescriptions. The best advice is such issues have to be decided individually. No more will be said on that topic.

Ditto for severe physical impairments. Delta offers sound advice on this, other airlines do similarly.

What about the rest of us, on the kinds of flights we usually take?

Short flights honestly do not seem to pose a significant issue to the 65+ who are otherwise in good health. Scan the literature and there is not much written about geriatric travel and the one and two hour flights that make up the bulk of my business travel. And using myself as a case study of one I can say no health issues arise on those flights.

It’s the long-haul flights where the literature grows dense. For instance, a St. Louis geriatrician flatly says, “jet lag worsens as you get older.” Definitely my experience, also what I hear from others. Recovery from a hop to Paris 20 years ago that took a day or two now may take a week. “As you get older you feel more tired for longer. It takes about five days for me to recover from jet lag now,” traveler Tim Huxley, 58, told the South China Morning Post.

A key issue is that older travelers have less ability to make the physical compensations often made necessary by long-haul travel, Dr. Winston Goh told the South China Morning Post. Our aged bodies are less resilient and we don’t generate new cells as swiftly.

Alcohol also hits senior harder and that applies all the more to booze at 30,000 feet or in an airport club. It’s why I rarely drinking booze on the road.

The SCMP adds that deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is more of an issue for seniors on long haul flights. That’s a potentially deadly blood clot. The usual precaution is to get up and walk every hour or so. I know I’ve done that since I first wrote about DVT going on 20 years ago.

And then there is a grim finding that longterm, chronic jet lag and related sleep deprivation are associated with cognitive impairment.

At least some physicians also insist that a heavy travel schedule may be associated with more pronounced aging – very probably because our sleep habits are disrupted and so is our diet (who eats as healthy on the road as at home? I know I do not). We simply live unhealthier lives traveling and that may be associated with more signs of visible aging (say hello dry skin and wrinkles).

Business travel indeed may be killing us.

Bottomline: travel definitely is harder past a certain age. What age? For some it’s 60. Others, 80. Still others haven’t hit that age for themselves yet and that’s key: this is a personal matter.

Here’s the other reality however: most of us know when it’s time to put the rollaboard in storage. I have personal friends who have done exactly that in the last year, a decision triggered – in every case I know – by a medical issue that made it prudent to dramatically cut back on travel.

Makes sense to me. My plan is to travel until I no longer can depend upon myself, physically and/or mentally, to navigate through airports and in unknown cities (where the usual chore is no more complicated than getting from the airport to the hotel). I commend that philosophy to you.

Do we need airlines to get involved, to force seniors to fly with designated supervision? Absolutely not. Most seniors – especially most who are still actively on the road – are fit, healthy, perfectly capable of making their own travel plans and decisions.

Let’s leave it that way.

4 thoughts on “Too Old To Fly?”

  1. Bob…..Great column. As a guy who started flying on DC-6Bs on the late, great Pacific Southwest Airlines, I am not as resilient as i once was. So I am buying premium economy for the extra space and with American, I recently discovered, it comes with some free hooch.

    Hope you are well

    Cheers, Chris

    1. Totally agree w/Chris…. Great article. On long flights I pay for an economy ticket and immediately use my points to upgrade. While the airline “lie flat” beds aren’t like being at home, it defintiely helps recover from the jet lag. At the end of a long flight I also try to plan to use an airline lounge that has showers. Does wonders for recovery

  2. Hi Bob, this truly is a great column as Chris, above, has stated. I am 74 and am facing the issues you write about. I had about a half-year of work in 2018 that required me to travel weekly from the PacNorthWest to Calgary and home. Even that short-haul was tougher on my body than I would have dreamed years ago. Your philosophy on how each person should decide for themselves is the same one I’ve used for years when it came to actually working longer and it seems appropriate for flying as well.
    Anyway, thanks for writing on this subject. No one else has.

  3. I’m 60, and have been traveling on and off for about 30 years, sometimes a great deal, sometimes not. I average about 8-10 days a month of air travel right now, and for me that is more than enough.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed the travel is harder to endure, and it takes longer to recover from it. I was traveling almost constantly a couple of years ago, and did it for about six years. It did cause health issues, one of which involved surgery. I got off the road for a while and got healthier.

    I’m better about what I eat, and how much I exercise when I’m traveling, but for those of us that are “road warriors”, I will say that based upon my experience I don’t recommend it after your mid-fifties, as it is very difficult to maintain the discipline required to maintain your health. If you’re like me, you get lonely, even though you talk to your s.o. once or twice a day, and eventually you become self-destructive in passive ways.

    I used to enjoy it, but the air travel part of it has taken all the joy out of travel, and I hold little interest now in international travel. It matters little who is at fault here. The results are the same. I’m happier at home, and I don’t think that will change for me in the future.

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