DALLAS — Janet Diorio has been dreaming about a trip to California or Florida, but she has been too nervous to fly for years.
Not afraid of flying, per se. She worries about the ordeal it could create for her 8-year-old daughter Caroline, who has autism.
Diorio, along with her husband and Caroline’s twin brother Ryan, got a dry run for a future vacation on a recent Saturday at DFW International Airport, as American Airlines restarted a program that the COVID-19 pandemic put on a two-year pause. The “It’s Cool to Fly American Airlines” program is targeted toward flyers with special needs who want practice with the travel experience.
“I want to go on vacation but I thought, ‘How am I going to get my daughter on a plane?’” Diorio said. “Is she going to sit in her seat? Is she going to run up and down the aisles?”
Airports and air travel are often stressful for everyone and the COVID-19 pandemic has put a microscope on just how challenging it can be, with a sharp spike in unruly passenger reports and airline operation meltdowns that lead to delays and cancelations, sometimes resulting in more angry passengers.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines started the program for passengers with special needs in 2014, letting them board a plane that even taxis around the airport’s runway for about 30 minutes. Pilots power up the engine to let passengers feel the roar and feel the thrust of takeoff.
Bruce Sickler, who runs the program for American, said the company has hosted about 6,000 passengers and family members in the last seven years at its biggest hub airports but also smaller airports, too.
“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.”
People as old as 26 have participated along with their families, Sickler said.
American Airlines coordinates the program through local autism and disability community groups. Right now, there is a waitlist for those who want to participate. The next event is in Charlotte on April 23 and Los Angeles on May 7. Philadelphia, Orange County, Jacksonville, Cleveland and San Diego are also on the schedule.
American program leaders hope to do another round at DFW, its largest hub, in September or October.
At the recent event, passengers such as Caroline Diorio parked at the airport, checked bags, went through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint and waited in Terminal C — just like any other trip.
Sickler said the practice runs let parents know if their children are ready to fly after years of sitting out of travel because of the unique, and sometimes challenging, experience that flying is.
“At first you see the tension on the face of parents. They are really quiet,” Sickler said. “I tell them it doesn’t make a difference if it doesn’t go well. It’s better that it doesn’t go well here than during a planned vacation.”
That’s the reason Diorio hasn’t planned dream vacations to theme parks or the California coast. The family’s most elaborate trip was to San Antonio three years ago. But a car trip is much more controllable than an airplane since you can get out and take a break or even turn around if needed.
“This mock travel experience really allows travelers or people considering traveling to experience the hustle and bustle of the air travel routine,” said Jim Moses, who runs DFW operations for American Airlines. “We make this as realistic as possible.”
That included plenty of planning by Diorio and other parents. She packed noise-canceling headphones and an iPad. The airport made it special with therapy dogs for the kids. American Airlines packed goodie bags with coloring books and other groups donated Happy Meals from McDonald’s.
The process wasn’t an exact simulation because there were a large number of kids on the plane with autism and other disabilities.
Some children were loud. One was crying, which Caroline said bothered her. But overall, Diorio said her daughter was mostly calm during the experience, giving the family confidence that a two- to three-hour plane trip may be feasible.
“My husband wants to go to Disney World or Disneyland, but a theme park still makes me nervous,” Diorio said. “But I know we are going to travel now.”
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