Armless pilot Jessica Cox on inclusive globe trotting and how points and miles helps her travel
There’s no stopping Jessica Cox from getting where she wants to go.
Cox, who was born without arms, is a motivational speaker, recreational pilot, black belt in ATA Martial Arts and a certified scuba diver.
For Cox, travel has always required some innovation and creativity.
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“The fact that I was born without arms led to this opportunity that people want to hear from me,” said Cox in an interview with TPG from her home in Arizona. “I was born ready to travel. And I loved that I was always on the move, very much like my mother. And so it was almost like it worked so well with my personality and my profession.”
She holds the Guinness World Record for being the first woman to fly a plane with her feet.
Cox recreationally flies a 1946 ERCO Ercoupe 415-C.
“It’s a plane that cruises at like 90 miles per hour, so it's a very slow plane compared to other airplanes, but because of its design, it allows me to fly independently and be certified to do so because it is more simple of an airplane compared to probably the plane that comes to mind when you think of small planes,” she said. “So this is a simplistic airplane, but it allows me to have the freedom of flight. And it's wonderful.”
Her next project is to build the first exclusively foot-controlled airplane from an RV-10, which would allow her to fly faster.
“We're talking more of a modern plane built to the specs to allow me to fly it with my feet ... and this is cruising at like 200 miles per hour as opposed to 95 miles per hour,” she said.
She hopes flying this plane will help spread the message that disability isn't inability, and show the world what is possible for anyone with a disability.
Using Points and Miles for Travel
When Cox has to travel long distances, she flies commercially, often leveraging her points and miles strategically.
“I'm basically in a straightjacket when I sit next to someone in coach because I cannot move my legs,” said Cox. “So I always opt to use the points to either upgrade, or require any business travel to be on business class.”
Cox says she uses a Chase Sapphire Reserve in combination with the airline miles she's racked up through her international and domestic flying engagements. Together, those points and miles have helped her and her husband take dream trips such as spending a week in Paris while spending only a hundred dollars. Thanks to their elite status at Marriott at the time, they were able to access the hotel lounge, among other amenities, during that trip.
Cox says what she loves about the points and miles game is the free stuff you can get if you're strategic. For example, during a multi-city trip in 2019, it occurred to her that she could use her Priority Pass to get free food and access the airport lounges – saving her $244 in the process, which she documented for her YouTube followers.
See how Cox travels through an airport:
Inclusive globe trotting
Making sure she has a business class seat to ensure she has the room she needs to travel comfortably isn’t the only challenge Cox has encountered in her travels.
She recalls instances where either she’s been entirely ignored by airline staff or flight attendants have been too aggressive in offering assistance. She hopes to turn those into teachable moments for the travel industry.
Traveling during a pandemic adds another complication.
“I think the precautionary measures that are being taken for cleanliness and safety are almost in a way, they're becoming a little difficult in a unique way for me, because wearing a mask, I'm unable to communicate by smiling or for doing some kind of facial expression (to signal that) ‘I'm ok.’ And sometimes the mask kind of prevents that. But I know we need to keep everyone safe,” she said.
“And another thing I've noticed is that because I use my feet as my hands, I keep very meticulously clean feet.... I have a pedicure like almost every month. But because of this whole fear of germs and all this going on recently, I feel like people are maybe a little bit more alerted when I use my feet than they were in the past.”
Cox said how she’s being perceived depends on her location.
“I've noticed the international differences of being someone with a disability traveling solo to a more developing nation or a country other than the U.S. because it's the reception I have received. It's like a shock,” she said. “It's like, ‘Why are you traveling by yourself? You don't have arms.’
"And I've had that experience when I traveled internationally to Europe for the first time and I flew through the Middle East into Europe. People were absolutely astounded that I'm traveling solo without arms, and not only being a woman without arms (but also) being I was fairly young when I was traveling.”
Proud Filipino American
Cox’s journey has inspired communities and allowed her to visit and revisit several places including the Philippines, where her late mother is from.
Cox’s mother, a nurse, passed away five years ago, but daughter thinks of her dedication when she sees the work done by the Filipino community during COVID-19. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted the Filipino community throughout the world, as many serve as frontline workers.
Related: From the Bay to the Bayou: 10 places that are steeped in Filipino American history
“It's so humbling to know what they do and the sacrifices they make when they come home to their families and to expose themselves. And they're still committed to their profession. And it's saving so many lives out there. And, you know, we can never take that for granted,” she said. “So I feel humbled and I feel the gratitude that so many of us feel for them and their dedication at the current moment.”