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Rekindling Love at 35,000 Feet

Full airplanes are helping us renew our relationships with loved ones.

Key points

  • Airlines are sold out as people reconnect in person with loved ones all around the world.
  • While virtual screen time may have sustained relationships, eventually we need to see our grandchildren, parents, and lovers in person.
  • Airline staff have become modern-day matchmakers, family therapists, and healers.

In the last five months, I have flown more than 100,000 miles, crisscrossing North America, Europe, and Africa, renewing professional relationships and vacationing with my spouse in Paris and Amsterdam. Every flight I have taken has impressed me with how full they’ve been. While every airport is a long queue of anxiously departing passengers and understaffed security checks, there is something a little different about travelers these days. Look closer and what one sees is the heady excitement of love. We are all reconnecting, putting aside the screens for some much-needed hugs.

I’ve never seen so many passengers in wheelchairs being boarded. Elderly parents are finally able to come out of their COVID bunkers and jet off to see their grandchildren. There are so many babies, too. New parents are proudly returning home to show off the grandchildren that have never been held by those they’ve only touched through a screen. There are also many young people, adorned with backpacks, heading off for summer jaunts. And young couples, so obviously smitten with each other, find that cramped seats in economy are a welcome opportunity to cuddle.

Return to Travel

This return to travel is manifesting as a boom for the airlines. While the number of passengers dropped by 50 percent in 2020, from a high of more than 4.5 billion worldwide in 2019, it looks like 2022 is on track to eclipse all previous records. I’m not at all surprised. The streets of Paris are, once again, elbow to elbow with sightseers. Museum tours are booked for months in advance. On every corner and in every café, there are armies of selfie-takers documenting their croissants and cappuccinos.

It is as if we are all celebrating an armistice, even if COVID-19 keeps us masked.

Need for In-Person Connection

I’m reminded that to be human is to be compelled to connect. While a recent meta-analysis of research on the efficacy of in-person versus video-delivered psychotherapy by Ephrem Fernandez and his colleagues at the University of Texas found that the two techniques delivered almost the same outcomes, nonprofessional relationships seem to need an in-person component far more. In fact, all this travel may be exactly what the doctor ordered for the skyrocketing rates of mental illness that have plagued us for the last two years. With more than one in five adults reporting clinical levels of depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder in national surveys like that by the Public Health Agency of Canada, we will need many more frequent flyer miles to heal.

While virtual communication has helped to maintain our relationships, sold-out flights tell me that we are still, by our nature, tactile beings that require physical contact with those we love. We also are adventuresome and crave the stimulation of that which is out of the ordinary.

Airlines may not know it, but they are matchmakers, family therapists, and healers. Flight attendants who settle us in our seats and ground crews who move our luggage invisibly are creating a weave of global connections that are good for both our relationships and our well-being. If one pauses for a moment, after the chaos of boarding a flight is finally over and the roar of the engines lifts you into the air, you might just catch the gentle sigh of relief as people turn their attention to the connections they’re looking forward to when they finally land.


Fernandez, E., Woldgabreal, Y., Day, A., Pham, T., Gleich, B., & Aboujaoude, E. (2021). Live psychotherapy by video versus in‐person: A meta‐analysis of efficacy and its relationship to types and targets of treatment. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 28(6), 1535–1549.

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