Flying with any kid can be a challenge and source of stress for parents. But for parents who have kids with special needs like autism or anxiety, flying can seem out of reach completely. To help, American Airlines is relaunching a program that helps families do a dry run before the real thing — and parents are already lining up for the service.
Originally launched in 2014, the program, called “It’s Cool To Fly With American Airlines,” has been paused for the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now it’s rolling again, and it already has a waitlist.
The program allows both kids and adults with special needs of any kind to take a test flight — which involves going through security, walking to the gate, boarding the plane, taxiing around the tarmac, and hearing and feeling the power of the plane’s thrusters before takeoff. Kids can experience and get used to what it will be like on travel day, while parents can ease their minds and make travel plans with less worry and more information.
“I want to go on vacation but I thought, ‘How am I going to get my daughter on a plane?’” Janet Diorio, whose eight year old has autism, told The Dallas Morning News. “Is she going to sit in her seat? Is she going to run up and down the aisles?”
Bruce Sickler, who runs the program for American, told Disability Scoop that the program has helped 6,000 passengers in 49 cities since its inception. He also said that they serve anyone who needs help getting used to flying, regardless of age or background.
“It’s targeting kids with autism, but we don’t turn anyone away,” Sickler said. “Anyone that has anxiety can come, even adults with anxiety.”
At the last event, kids were greeted with therapy dogs, activity kits, and Happy Meals donated by McDonald’s — all to help them ease into the idea of flying.
“This mock travel experience really allows travelers or people considering traveling to experience the hustle and bustle of the air travel routine,” Jim Moses, who runs DFW operations for American Airlines, also told The Dallas Morning News. “We make this as realistic as possible.”
The airline says that the program helps them understand and serve their own customers better, too.
“The initiative is also valuable for the team members who are involved, particularly those who work onboard aircraft,” the company said in a statement. “Through this experience, they grow to understand the difficulty that those traveling with autism face and how they can care for and assist families during their journey. They are also encouraged to ask customers how best they can assist and allow each family to determine their own specific needs.” Over 700 people have volunteered their time to the program.
Currently, events are scheduled for Charlotte, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Orange County, Jacksonville, Cleveland and San Diego. The program is coordinated through disability communities and organizations local to each upcoming event.