Why Flying Is a Pain in the Back When You're Older
After my last flight I'm thinking air travel may no longer be worth it
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
This trip made me realize I’ve entered a new era of my life now that I'm over 60. Flying is becoming more of a physical challenge. So much so that I’m thinking if I have to fly to get somewhere, maybe I won’t go.
First off, let me say that I’m in good health. I eat right and exercise. I do yoga. I am of average height and weight. I don’t need a wheelchair or special boarding privileges when I fly. But I do have spinal stenosis and arthritis, which are common aging conditions. I am hardly disabled. But if I don’t move around a lot, my legs and feet burn.
(MORE: Spinal Stenosis: A Painful and Frequently Misdiagnosed Condition)
The flight times to New York and back were just over two hours each way. But not being able to comfortably stretch my legs en route made those flights seem endless. My legs, ankles and feet felt as if they were on fire.
Last year I developed another aging condition, one common to older men. I have an enlarged prostate, which pushes on my bladder. I need to use the bathroom a lot.
When You Can't Get Up to Go
On my flight to New York I had a window seat on a smaller commuter jet. I took that seat so I could see the Manhattan skyline. When I booked it I didn't think there'd be a problem getting up if I needed to. But the young man next to me fell dead asleep as soon as he got on board. Blame it on the vibration of the airplane, but I had to go more than usual. I couldn't wake him up. When I wanted to use the restroom I had to climb over him. On the flight back to Minneapolis, I booked an aisle seat to avoid that problem. But every time I dozed off while reading my magazines, I was awakened by a tap on my arm. “Excuse me,” the woman sitting next to me would say, “but I need to use the bathroom again.”
Throughout my flights I was scared to death I’d develop leg cramps, which I'm prone to. I didn't know how I'd be able to jump out of my seat and walk them off. My bigger fear was a life-threatening one: deep vein thrombosis, which is the medical term for blood clots. But they can happen to anyone — young or old — who remains stationary for too long a period, like sitting in a desk chair all day. Blood clots are more of a concern on longer, overseas flights than domestic ones.
Because I want to travel, I've been looking for answers to my age-related issues. Jill Rosenberg, the group travel manager for AAA New York, told The New York Times that when it comes to flying, "There's no bill out there for seniors' rights." If you have a special request, like for an aisle or bulkhead seat, she recommends you get a doctor's note that can be presented at check-in and the gate. "You can't just say, 'I have a disability, and I'm old,'" she said.
(MORE: The Solution to Your Pain May Be Right Underfoot)
The advice I found on the Internet, even from the most respected medical sites, was obvious: To help with circulation, get up and move about the cabin as often as possible. Drink lots of water and try to stretch. (See below: "More Information: Flying in an Upright but Comfortable Position"). Easier said than done. On today's jam-packed flights, serving carts usually block the aisles. It takes forever to give all the passengers their free coffee or Diet Cokes. If not the serving carts, then it's people waiting in line to use the bathroom that get in the way. Drink a lot of water? I couldn't agree more. But unless I’m sitting in an aisle seat where I can easily get up, I’ve found the price I have to pay for staying hydrated is too brutal. I am hardly ready for adult diapers.
Sit close to the bathrooms? I find their chemical smell unbearable.
Extra Legroom Isn't Always the Answer
Travel advisory sites recommend that flyers like me who have physical issues should consider reserving exit row and bulkhead seats. They do cost more, about $30 on domestic flights. “Desperation for relief has made seats with extra legroom cash cows for airlines,” according to The New York Times.
My friend, Kathy, who’s my age, and also of normal height and weight, did just that on a trip last spring to Southeast Asia from San Francisco. “I will never do it again,” she told me. "I'll just get an aisle seat in coach and save the $200 I spent for legroom."
“My seat was in the exit row near the bathrooms,” she said. “With no seat in front of me, I had no seat pocket to stash things and no under-the-seat space to put my handbag and carry-on. This meant they had to go in the overhead compartment, so it was difficult to access them. I had to balance my books, magazines, glasses and other things on my lap the whole flight. My seat back did not even recline. My tray table came out of the armrest.
“The area directly in front of me, my extra leg room space, was where people came to stretch and stand," she added. "Sometimes there’d be a group of people waiting there to use the bathrooms. They seemed clueless that I and others were actually sitting there and my feet got stepped on more than once. At one point I got up to walk around. For the first time ever, I envied the people in the regular coach seats. They looked so snug and cozy. Next time, I’ll go business class on a long trip. Or if that’s too expensive, I’ll stay home.”
Fasten Your Seatbelts, Rougher Times Ahead
For those of us who have to fly coach, things are only going to get worse, according to a just-published article in the Los Angeles Times. It reported that American Airlines plans to add an undetermined number of seats in the main cabin of all of its aircraft. As of now, the standard width of an economy seat is 18 inches. Distance from headrest to headrest is 32 inches. Add more seats, and that cramped space may shrink.
“American is not unique in trying to squeeze more revenue out of each plane,” the newspaper reported. “Alaska, Jet Blue, Southwest and Spirit airlines have installed seats with thinner back cushions, allowing the carriers to squeeze in more seats per cabin. Spirit, for example, packs 178 seats on an Airbus 320, while United Airlines puts 138 seats on the same aircraft.”
So maybe instead of treating myself to another fun weekend in New York, or going to Miami, San Francisco or Los Angeles, I’ll check out Fargo, N.D. It may not have a lot going on, but it does have appeal: I can drive there.
More Information: Flying in an Upright but Comfortable Position
The following articles and websites may be helpful for older flyers.
In a New York Times article, "Striking a Pose Above the Clouds," yoga instructor Cyndi Lee recommends doing modified yoga poses while flying. You can, for example, do eagle pose at your seat and tree pose in the aisle, she says.
- Passengers with a disability can review their rights on the Transportation Security Administration website.
- Before booking a trip and selecting your seat, check out Tripadvisor’s seatguru.com. It features the seating plans of 92 airlines.
- Cheapflights.com offers an Airplane Legroom Guide. The site provides seat pitch and seat width in economy for major carriers.
- For more advice, read “Tips for Overcoming Age-Related Discomfort on Airline Flights.”