Nearly 200 families with autistic children joined ground staff and aircrews from JetBlue, TSA officers, and airport staff on Saturday afternoon to experience the realities of air travel. JetBlue has sponsored its “Wings for Autism” program over the past three years, and selected Burbank for the first west coast “travel rehearsal” event.
According to Christina Choe, station manager for JetBlue in Burbank, “Everybody deserves a chance to travel.” Choe, who’s own son was recently diagnosed as autistic, continued that “both crews and passengers need to understand many things can trigger a response in an autistic child, both verbal and non-verbal. We (both airline industry and passengers) just need to be patient with, and understand special needs children.”
Entire families with autistic children followed the same process checking in for the flight, going through TSA security, waiting in the departure lounge, and boarding the flight as any other passenger would go through at the airport. Families, ground staff, and aircrews all went through the same experience as a real flight, including minor disruptions, handling disabled passengers, and adjusting to the cabin.
Jessica Elmore from Taft, CA, brought her children Molly and Mason to the program. “Mason is a little escape artist,” laughed Elmore, as she emphasized “society needs to understand and accept the reality of autism.” Perhaps the most important benefit of programs such as “Wings for Autism” is the confidence children are able to gain from exposure to new stimulus and triggers. Elmore, having a great time with her husband trying to corral the excited kids, concluded “people with autistic children need to have a good ‘dry run’ before jumping into a new experience. Now we are able to go to restaurants, shopping, and soon vacations together. This is a great program.”
Jennifer Slater-Sanchez from Palmdale agreed, adding “these are not bad kids, and we are not bad parents.” Understanding most flights include a variety of passengers, including stressed out business people with little tolerance for disruption, Slater-Sanchez emphasized “if an autistic child is having an (episode) in the airport or plane, the parent’s first priority is to take care of the child. Don’t glare, try giving the parent a smile or encouraging word, or a nice gesture.”
And when passengers observe an episode, consider asking the parent if they can use some help – many times the parent is overwhelmed by the child, and any assistance will be accepted with gratitude.
Ed Murray, an investigator with JetBlue Corporate Security was observing processes, reactions, and overall impact of the event. Murray noted “the TSA is supporting the program quite well.” He went on to reinforce the value of events like this, stating “all participants gain value from the exercise.”
Richard Corbett, a pilot for JetBlue flew with the airplane from Long Beach Airport. Murray volunteered to participate, and was having a great time joking with children, handing out pilot’s wings to the children, and reassuring parents and family members that they are welcome on JetBlue.
As flight attendants went through the required safety checks and briefings, the only disruption on the “flight” appeared to be media representatives who blocked aisles, stairways, and did not stow their cameras safely under the seat in front of them or overhead bins.
As families exited the aircraft, Burbank Airport Fire department staff provided a brief demonstration, showing off their state-of-the-art equipment – an immediate hit with the kids!
As the event drew to a close, Lucy M. Burghdorf, Manager, Public Relations and Government Affairs concluded the event was a great success. Proud Burbank Airport was selected as the first “Wings for Autism” sponsor on the west coast, proud of the manner which families and airport staff contributed to the event, and especially proud of the children.
Wings for Autism was sponsored jointly by JetBlue, the Burbank Bob Hope Airport, and Pacific Child & Family.