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American Airlines "Air Aware" program

A week from tomorrow we'll be taking part in a brand new program put on by American Airlines at O'Hare International Airport aimed at helping families with autism try out the experience of flying. In our case, obviously, it's our son's sensory sensitivities which have prevented us from flying, but the idea is the same.

There is a huge problem the airlines are just figuring out...mainly, that families with small children are avoiding air travel because of the risk involved with expensive tickets and unpredictable behavior/reaction from the children. No parent wants to spend $1000 or more to fly their family on vacation, the holidays at grandma's, etc. only to face the nightmare of an airport freakout. That leads to very anxious kids, fellow passengers, and flight crew. Worst case, it may mean a last minute cancellation and no trip. So airlines around the country--at parent request--are beginning to let families test the waters in realistic sessions.

We managed to read the e-mail from our school social worker in time to RSVP for the inaugural "flight" of 25 families. But there are 35 more families, I believe, scheduled for a second experience soon. When I posted to social media that we'd gotten in, there immediately were friends from around the country hoping this comes to their airport. And it's being watched closely for success or failure.

In Chicago, it's largely the work of an O'Hare tower worker for American who is taking on secondary duties in organizing this. He's doing an amazing job so far--returning phone calls, e-mailing information, creating Power Point presentations for the kids to have a social story to follow in the days leading up to the event. The details have been very complete when they arrive though a few wires have been crossed. My understanding is executives at American Airlines are watching the results of the Chicago experiment closely and hoping to expand the program. It originally had a different name and nothing is really shiny and polished...The Mama is quick to point out she imagines what we go through will change dramatically with feedback should it go "corporate official."

We get free parking for the afternoon in a specified airport garage. Then we've been directed to particular ticket windows to check-in and get boarding passes. (We had to give our family info to be cleared for entering the gate areas.) TSA trainees are in on the fun as well and we've been instructed to fill our carry-on luggage with challenging items that will require close inspection or perhaps leaving behind. Many of the children, we anticipate, will have much greater difficulties than our son. So many of the families have requested this "flight" be made as difficult and realistic as possible to stretch some horizons as families cope with the ordeal. After clearing security, we'll face a long walk to one of the farthest gates to give the children a chance to smell, listen, and see airport food, stores, moving walkways, the whole "airport thing." After waiting at our gate to board, we'll find our assigned seats and listen to the safety spiel. The plane engines will run, but we will not actually leave the gate. But a beverage service-complete with the cart in the aisle--will be offered. After re-entering the airport, we'll meet in a conference area to discuss what happened.

I really can't say enough the same thing I say when I mention sponsors for our dad group...companies who are taking an active, responsive role with families deserve nothing but respect and encouragement for the leadership. Heck, I'd love to see this program expanded to the general public with children who may like to test the waters before a big trip...or even just for kids who want to get an up close view of air travel. Next Saturday's event is being offered free of charge, but I suspect families would pay either a per person or flat family rate under $50 for the afternoon's insurance that their preschoolers would do ok on a 2 hour flight to Disney World or that big days-on-an-airplane trip overseas.

My whole family is very excited to go and very much looking forward to it. I'll have a full report after.


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