American Airlines’ It’s Cool to Fly program helps children with Autism

American Airlines’ It’s Cool to Fly program helps children with Autism

April is National Autism Awareness Month and for the past five years American Airlines has been hosting its annual event in recognition. It’s Cool to Fly is a program created to raise awareness and acceptance of autism and to the thousands of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) every year, and to give travelers with ASD a trial airport and flight experience.

It’s Cool to Fly is a three-and-a-half-hour free program that allows passengers with autism and their families to mock this routine and make them comfortable with the sensory experience of air travel, while still on the ground (taxing around the airport). Getting boarding passes, standing in line with unknown people, going through a metal detector and x-ray machines, stepping away from your belongings, large crowds, and boarding can be overwhelming experiences that prevent many families who have a child with autism to travel.

Bruce Sickler, an Airport Harmonization Specialist, said that “you watch, from start to finish, the parents coming into the airport. When they are sitting and waiting for the plane, you see this face of concern; the what-if factor is all over the parents’ faces… They worry how their child is going to react because they’ve seen their reaction before. But then you get on the plane and see that little bit of worry release. Then you get off the plane and they are excited; they know how much their child can do and that this program has helped make a difference.”

The program has not only helped children get accustomed to the experience and allowed families to take trips, but also helped AA’s team members become more aware of the challenges and obstacles these customers face, and how they can better assist throughout the process. All American Airlines employees participating in the program are volunteers that care about the issue and, as mentioned by Sickler, “they get something valuable out of it too. They are learning firsthand the compassion needed to serve these customers and their loved ones at every step of the journey.”

In 2017, at one of the events at Chicago O’Hare Airport, Tracy Hellner (the mother of a child with autism) said that “events like this truly make a difference in the lives of individuals like my son, and make both the parents and child feel both hope and happiness,” and American Airlines staff members mentioned that “the children leave the event with smiles on their faces as they become familiar by repetition – for some, it’s their third or fourth time to attend.”

In 2018, It’s Cool to Fly was shown on Meet the Peetes (actress Holly Robinson Peete’s and former NFL player Rodney Peete’s reality show) after Mrs. Peete participated in the program with RJ, their son who was diagnosed with autism in 2000, at Los Angeles International Airport in 2017.

On March 30, this year, the airline hosted a trial run for 50 children with autism and their families at the San Diego International Airport for the first time. According to Yahoo Lifestyle, the Martinez family (Annete, Jesus and their 8-year-old son, Michael Edward – whose form of autism places him just between those who are higher and lower functioning) participated in the event and said they couldn’t have imagined the mock experience would have gone so well.

Jesus, Michael and Annette Martinez participated in American Airlines’ It’s Cool to Fly program for children with autism. From yahoo.com (Photo Courtesy of Annette Martinez)

Mrs. Martinez also said “we’ve always driven because we didn’t know how Michael would do with flying, so when I got this email from the Autism Society of San Diego informing us that there was going to be this event, I told my husband that it was the perfect thing for Michael to do.” As they live in Calexico (CA) and have other sons living in Seattle (WA) and Tampa Bay (FL), visiting is not always easy to do by car.

Before the event, Michael was excited about the idea of flying (they will be going to Florida by the end of the month). Mrs. Martinez said additional time was spent with Michael’s therapist in order to prepare him, and Mr. Martinez said “we actually had to let him know like a week ahead that we’re gonna go practice on Saturday… Otherwise, he probably was gonna think that we were gonna fly out and he would’ve probably gotten very disappointed.”

The family also mentioned TSA agents took extra time to explain the process to those going through the metal detectors for the first time, and American Airlines employees took children toward the windows to look at the plane they were about to board; however, nothing else was different from the usual procedures – making everything look as real as possible.

Mrs. Martinez also said that “not only did we have this experience, but we got to become friends with families… American Airlines, the crew, the airport, it was just amazing. I told my husband they couldn’t have done a better job, we’re very grateful for what they did for our children.”

 

Sources:
nbcsandiego.com, “Local Airline Holds Trial Flight for Children with Autism” by Brittany Ford. Mar 31, 2019.
yahoo.com, “Family ‘grateful’ after American Airlines hosted mock flight for kids with autism: ‘It was the perfect thing’” by Kerry Justich. Apr 02, 2019.
news.aa.com, “It’s Cool to Fly Program to be Featured on ‘Meet the Peetes’.” Apr 19, 2018.
news.aa.com, “Mock flight program helps kids with autism soar.” May 03, 2017.