How American Airlines is helping kids with special needs adjust to air travel
A unique partnership between Clearbrook and American Airlines, now in its fourth year, is helping children with autism, sensory disorders and other special needs overcome their fear of air travel.
Called "It's Cool to Fly American Airlines," the program gives children with special needs the chance to experience the chaos and noise of air travel in the controlled environment of a mock flight.
"Interest has been extremely high," says Tracy Hellner, autism resource specialist for Clearbrook. "Families not only love the event, but they truly feel that they are able to take the next step in their travel adventures."
The latest mock flight took place earlier this fall and was filled to capacity, with 40 families -- all identified by Clearbrook -- from throughout the Chicago area.
When they arrived at O'Hare International Airport, they got the full treatment. Family members checked in at the counter and received their boarding passes before waiting in line to go through security and walk through the terminal to get to their gate.
Once at their gate, they took in all the sights and sounds of the busy airport while waiting for the plane to board. As part of the boarding process, they found their seats and listened to a safety briefing before taxiing for 45 minutes around the airport.
Ed Pizza, a 40-year veteran with American and senior operations planner, has coordinated the flight since its inception. He says the idea came about when the mother of a daughter with autism contacted the airline to see what they could do to ease her daughter's fears.
Their first mock flight took place in 2014 and had 15 children and their families. Since then, American has partnered with Clearbrook to reach the autism community and bumped up the flights to twice a year for 40 families.
Every flight is unique, with families experiencing different aspects of the day differently. Pizza remembers one family whose teenage son was terrified of stepping across the slight gap between the end of the jet bridge and the plane.
It took an experienced crew member, who spoke softly to him and then gestured with her hand to follow her, before he stepped across and entered the plane to the cheering of all on board.
"We try to make it as real as it will ever get," Pizza says. "We rev up the engines up to 100 miles per hour during takeoff, and simulate the landing by reversing the engines."
When they push back from the gate, families enjoy snacks and beverage service. At the end of the flight, children receive a certificate of accomplishment.
Debbie Nelson of Arlington Heights accompanied her 13-year-old son, Wyatt, who has Down syndrome and autism, and has severe sensory disorders. She says Wyatt found the experience empowering and exciting.
"Up until now, we haven't been able to travel because he is so big and I cannot lift him if he has a meltdown," Nelson says. "Now he's shown he can go through the whole process rather independently and I feel safe to travel with him."
In fact, she plans to follow through on a long-anticipated trip to Disneyland to visit friends they haven't seen in years.
Samantha Rodriguez of Schaumburg attended the program with her husband and two sons.
"Thanks to this experience," she says, "we have the courage to fly with our two boys."
This unique flight experience with American Airlines -- and outreach to families of children with autism -- now takes place 50 times across the country in cities such as Dallas, Phoenix and New York, to name a few.
In Chicago, Pizza credits Franco Tedeschi, head of American's operations at O'Hare, with supporting the program from top to bottom, as well as all of the crew members who volunteer their time to pull off the mock flight.
"There's a real need out there," Pizza says. "These are families who haven't flown together for years because they didn't know how their child would react.
"This is something we can do," he adds. "No one else but an airline can do this."
Editor's note: Debbie Nelson is an employee of Paddock Publications.