The holiday season can mean travel and for many of us who need to go longer distances, airplanes make it easy. But, getting on an airplane for some can be a challenging or even a scary thing. Did you know that over 20 million peeps are estimated to have a fear of flying in an airplane? Wow. That is a lot!
Our son who is overcoming autism more recently became afraid of flying. When he was little, it was easier to fly. He would look at the fun things at the airport like the moving sidewalks, baggage trucks outside, and conveyor belts. We could also keep him distracted while on the plane with fun toys or games. As he got older, he became more concerned about flying. Then, a few years ago the situation become a bit more serious…
The landing that wasn’t
We were coming into Minneapolis, slow and steady, when we unexpectedly had to abort the landing. If you haven’t experienced an aborted landing, here is a basic description: it looks like all is going well, you know that the airport is up ahead in the distance, but just before you think you are going to touchdown and land, the engines speed up and the plane climbs high while banking through a tight turn.
When a pilot aborts a landing, he or she does it to keep people safe, not freak people out. I’ve experienced a few aborted landings in my lifetime, but every time, it ends in a completely safe situation. The plane may have quite the tilt on the turn, but it always ends well, safe and sound back at the airport.
But for someone who is overcoming autism or a fear of flying, an aborted landing can be SUPER SCARY.
Well, our son also has “no filter”. He will say what he is feeling straight up and in the moment. And since he has become an older teenager, he has learned a few swear words, too (dang).
During our aborted landing, he let everyone on the entire plane know that we were,
“ALL ABOUT TO *#%&ING DIE!”…
in the loudest voice…
Poor lady sitting ahead of us who also was white knuckled grabbing on to the armrest looking back at us with the widest eyes.
I am pretty sure that the pilots behind the cockpit doors heard it, too…even though we were sitting near the back of the plane. Double dang.
Fortunately, we were on a plane with a lot of kind and understanding people…and a high school Lacrosse team that lightly chuckled when he yelled (took the pressure out of the cabin in a good way!). I don’t think my husband and I said sorry enough to the sweet elderly ladies holding rosaries behind us. One person looked at me and said, “That’s OK, he just said what all of us were thinking”.
So, needless to say, going back to traveling on an airplane since then has been a bit tricky for our family. But, we believe in overcoming and that all things are possible.
Possible happened for us the last time we flew.
Angels flying with wings on high
We were heading out on vacation, leaving from Minneapolis International airport. My husband had told the gate agent that our son had special needs and asked if we would be able to board early. As we got on the plane, the pilot found out about our son. Turns out she had a son with autism, too. We were all very touched when she then sat down with us and talked directly to our son about the safety of air travel. She treated him as if he was the only person in the airport. What an angel.
He asked her question after question. And she answered him with amazing patience and care for his concerns. She then told us about a program at the airport called Navigating MSP and suggested we check it out. We flew that day a bit less stressed.
We did check out the program. It took a few months to find a time for the program to work into our schedule as it is only offered the first Saturday of each month. But it was well worth the wait!
Getting better step by step
The Navigating MSP program had it all figured out for us, step by step.
First step: Check in. We were first greeted at an information booth to check in to the program day by kind volunteers, one of which had a therapy dog. My son LOVED that dog. Having a therapy dog there was a great way to start to ease the fears of those who were participating. We were then paired with a volunteer of the program who took us up to the ticketing area.
Second step: TSA check. A TSA escort met us next and stepped us through to a separate line to go through security checks. Did you know TSA helps offers assistance to those traveling with special needs or medical conditions? We didn’t. So good to know!
You can call TSA CARES up to 72 hours in advance to set up a TSA escort to meet those with special needs and help escort them through TSA when traveling. That means no lines. THAT was worth learning. Our son has been in the waiting lines at the airport before. Let’s say it can be more than a bit stressful. Everyone in the TSA area was so kind, even noticing that he had a birthday coming up! They were high-fiving him after he went through.
Third step: explore the airport: Our volunteer took us around the airport. We rode the tram, went to the observation deck and watched planes for a while, and then went to a gate where there was a plane waiting for us.
Fourth step: Gate area check in and boarding. We boarded the plane where there were flight attendants there to share and let us ask any questions. Pilots typically are available and on the plane to share and answer any questions about the safety of flying. But, the day we toured, all pilots that were involved in the program were not available. The flight attendants did a great job filling in and answering the questions that came up from those who were there. They also allowed us to check out the plane. My son even was able to sit in the cockpit which totally made his day!
While the plane doesn’t actually leave the gate or fly, it was a huge step for helping my son overcome his fear of flying and help him feel more comfortable about the process and safety of traveling by air.
Navigating MSP is offered where we live, but there are other airports also offer similar programs or assistance. You can check your local airport or type the internet by “special needs travel for (city name)”. There are new programs popping up more and more around the country! It’s time to fly! Be free!