Earlier this week, on the 3rd of April, I wrote about JetBlue’s Wings for Autism program at Boston Logan Airport being held today, the 6th of April. As the father of a child with autism, as well as a frequent flyer, I can honestly say I have long since been worried about flying with my youngest child. Now, as I sit on an Amtrak Train headed back home from Boston with Bubba, and his brother Max, following attending the Wings for Autism Program at Boston’s Logan Airport I can’t say I am still not concerned about flying with Bubba, but both he and I are both better prepared.
Wings for Autism, originally started by JetBlue in cooperation with Boston’s Logan Airport and the Charles River Center, has now spread to include Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The whole experience this morning at Logan Airport’s Terminal E was just wonderful. Virtually all the staff in the terminal area, from the security check point, to the boarding gates and on the aircraft were trained to handle the little autistic travelers who they would be encountering all morning.
From the start of the program it was clear that those who volunteered for the program were fantastically suited for their job. During the check in process this morning Bubba was becoming overwhelmed when out of no where a United Airlines gate agent came over to talk to him, as he stared at her blankly she peaked her head up and motioned to a JetBlue gate agent who came over and got Bubba to engage, walking him through the process of waiting in line and checking in.
Check in was painless, I expected chaos in the TSA screening checkpoint, but everything was going perfectly. Aside from a minor situation that was quickly rectified, TSA Transportation Security Officers (TSO) were doing their best to explain everything to everyone. Watching a TSO kneel down to speak with a number of children and explain the process as often as they needed to for the children to understand what has to happen, assuring them that their stuffed animal, train, pillow, would be waiting for them on the other side of the metal detector, was a great experience … one I wish happened every day at every airport.
Yes, I understand that the Wings for Autism program is not a real world travel environment, but it is pretty darn close and is designed to put children with autism, and other special needs, at ease so they can travel more calmly and known what to expect.
Past the security screening area, in the gate area, children were met by gate agents, ramp agents, flight attendants and pilots from JetBlue, United and Delta, as well as Massachusetts State Troopers assigned to Logan Airport and Massport Firefighters. As children had questions, balked, or in many cases simply made gestures, these volunteers were there in an instant to greet them and make sure everything went as smooth as possible for them. When kids were moving with the flow the volunteers were there to keep going, cheered them on and kept the information flowing. The flow of constant information to the kids depended on each individual volunteer, but the fact that it was constant ensured the children were not only engaging in the experience but digesting the information being presented to them.
This morning Bubba had the opportunity to participate in the on-board experience with both United Airlines and JetBlue, as well as interact with Delta Air Lines‘ ground staff. Each airline cabin crew had a different approach and experience … much like flying them in the real world … but each airline’s cabin crew could not have been more gracious, informative and kind. Flight crews shut the doors and went through a ‘whole flight,’ roughly 30 minutes with one airline and 45 minute with the other.
As airline cabin crews walked the participants through the process of flying they sat with each child, and each family for as long as they needed to ensuring children knew how to use the seat belt, letting kids feel the yellow oxygen mask on their face (that they will likely never see in a real world flight). Tours of the cockpit and meeting the pilots were a given, but interestingly both airline cabin crews walked kids through the lavatories showing them how they worked.
In one instance a family tried to exit the aircraft after the “flight experience” had begun and a flight attendant stopped them. The flight attendant explained that the door had been shut for a full flight experience, and that the Wings for Autism program was not a quick tour of the plane but the opportunity to address any issues that may arise in a controlled environment with trained professionals. The flight attendant escorted the family back to a row of seats and spent a considerable amount of time discussing the child’s behaviour and going back and forth with the parents to figure out what could be done to help calm the child and keep them in their seat until the door was opened again.
My older son Max spent much of his time on the planes talking to his younger brother Bubba, who has autism, explaining how the seat reclined, discussing the in-flight wifi so Bubba could watch YouTube painting and cooking shows and demonstrating how to use the seat back TVs. When JetBlue served snacks Bubba settled in, turned on Sponge Bob and seemed to enjoy what was going on.
I cannot fully express how much I appreciate the airline and airport staff volunteering their time, and airlines volunteering their aircraft, to make the Wings for Autism Program happen. The volunteers offered far more than I could have possibly expected in assisting children with autism understand the process of airline travel, and working with parents to find solutions in aiding them bring their children on flights.
There will be issues that need to be addressed when we take Bubba on a real flight, but I feel better now having walked him through the whole process.
If you have a child with autism check for a Wings for Autism Program at an airport in your area. This program is expanding to new airports in the coming year. Boston’s Logan Airport will hold the program again this fall.
Bubba checks out everyone around him as he waits for his TSA screening at Boston’s Logan Airport during Wings for Autism
Bubba takes in the full travel experience as Jetblue serves snacks during Wings for Autism at Boston’s Logan Airport