In early February of 2020, my wife and I flew back to Austin from Victoria (Canada) with a stop in Seattle. As we went through US immigration, we noticed Asians wearing masks. We had heard of a worrisome illness in China but their mask wearing did not alert us of the coming COVID pandemic. This was our last domestic airline flight.
I don’t like to board planes anymore. I enjoyed flying when I traveled to Denver to attend college and afterwards during my early career. It was a break from the daily office grind and the airtime was usually only a few hours. I started flying internationally in 1992 when I traded cargoes of energy products. I flew 24 hours to Singapore, stopping along the way to change planes in San Francisco and Hong Kong. I sat in a large, comfortable seat in First Class. Although the jet lag from the time zone changes was debilitating, I enjoyed the experience.
My love of flying started to erode when I lived in London and The Hague (NL). The European airports were generally older and more crowded. The flights frequently were delayed and being American, I had to go through European immigration. Flights were generally full, and passengers packed closely together. The cold, damp weather seemed to seep into everything, especially my feet. One Christmas, we flew from Heathrow Airport (London) to Houston for Christmas. We prayed that our plane would depart as snow was forecasted to fall that morning. We were one of the last flights to leave before Heathrow shut down for three days causing many to miss Christmas gatherings.
Covid has made flying even more difficult. Socially distancing, mask wearing, and unruly passengers have removed any possible joy from the travel experience. Airline employees had to wear protective clothing before the vaccine was available and deal with passengers who would not follow safety rules. Several have been physically assaulted for enforcing rules that benefited the traveling community. Airports and airplanes are now crowded again which increases the probability of getting COVID. For domestic trips, we now drive rather than fly.
For Afghan refugees, flying out of Kabul and later to the United States, was both terrifying and joyful. Leaving their war-torn country was terrifying as witnessed through the news photos. Most had never flown nor do they have an understanding of American life. Once evacuated from Afghanistan to various international military bases, the refugees boarded commercial airlines and most flew to Dulles Airport (Washington, DC), then continued onward to military bases in Texas, Wisconsin, and New Mexico.
How does flying turn joyful? It starts with the people serving the refugees. There are 24 carriers and 450 planes enrolled in the US Air Force’s Air Mobility Command. The US government ordered six airlines and 18 planes to carry the refugees from military bases to their US settlement centers. Those commandeered could have begrudgingly done the task as ordered. It would be just another difficult job. However, this did not happen; employees started to volunteer for the assignment. The Financial Times (FT) reported on September 2nd that a United Airlines safety department worker volunteered as a translator. Her family fled Iran when she was a child and “the kindness of the flight attendants on that journey had inspired her to join the airline industry.” Kindness changes lives.
But just volunteering wasn’t enough. Flight attendants brought candy for the many Afghan children and went shopping for “coloring books, crayons, socks, toothbrushes and diapers to distribute.” They answered questions about basic items, like how the toilets work, American music, and suitable clothing for their new climate. A Delta pilot alerted a translator to make an announcement when their plane flew over New York City at night so that the refugees could glimpse the spectacular city lights. The crew comforted the passengers who feared that they might be transported back to Kabul. A National Guardswomen picked up a struggling child and carried her down the exit stairs so that the child’s mother could attend to her baby. God’s love was shown to these fearful, displaced people.
The Hebrews remembered what it felt like to be enslaved in a foreign land. Scripture is clear on this: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21 NRSV) Today is the 80th birthday of my wife’s aunt who a retired United flight attendant. Her career was spent welcoming and serving passengers. She is a faithful Christian and showed God’s love to all, even to those who were rude or belligerent. As I read about the airline employees who transported Afghan refugees to the United States, I said a prayer of thanks for all airline employees who served or are now serving with love, kindness, and grace. These employees make a difficult journey so much better, and I will thank them during all my future flights.