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American Airlines Offers Practice Flights for Children with Autism

Kids typically love airplanes, pilots and all things associated with flying. But for children (and adults) with autism spectrum disorder, traveling by plane can feel extremely overwhelming. Challenges may arise because of changes in routine, crowded spaces, unfamiliar sights and sounds, unpredictability and other elements. Overcoming such challenges can be tricky to navigate for the passenger who has autism, as well as their family members and/or travel companions.

American Airlines says it’s aware of and sensitive to the challenges that children with autism and/or anxiety often experience leading up to and during a flight. That’s why the company established “It’s Cool to Fly American” (ICTFA), an initiative centered on preparing children and their families for air travel through mock travel drills.

child enters plane during It's Cool to Fly American practice session
source: American Airlines

Autism statistics indicate that a fairly large population of potential passengers may benefit from participation in ICTFA. That’s because about 1-in-44 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Autism, as defined by the Autism Research Institute, is a developmental disorder with varying symptoms that usually appear within the first three years of life.

In select cities, airlines and airport team members have partnered with local organizations to support the disability community. Children with autism and their families are offered the opportunity to practice nearly every aspect of air travel. For example, families may run through parking, ticketing, waiting at the gate, check-in, boarding, taxiing, returning to the gate and luggage retrieval. The comprehensive exercise lasts about 3.5 hours.

“For many, travel is about quality family time, seeing new places and connecting with loved ones,” Bruce Sickler, a Reservations Representative in Dallas-Fort Worth who founded ICTF, said in a company press release. “At American [Airlines], we are aware that families traveling with children on the autism spectrum have some concerns that make it stressful for all involved. This program has helped make a difference by turning worry into excitement.”

child with fidget toy

ICTFA was on hiatus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but the empowering program has since resumed. American Airlines says it’s all made possible thanks to caring volunteers from various departments, including Reservations, Customer Service, Flight, Flight Service and Fleet Service, and Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

“ICTFA hits home personally for me,” said Carmen Calhoun, a Reservations Representative on the Resolution Service Desk in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I have a 19-year-old niece with autism. I never knew what autism was until she was diagnosed. Back then, there were not many resources for families with kids with autism. That’s why ICTFA is so important. Giving families an opportunity to have that travel experience with guidance and help along the way is a huge deal and volunteering for this event gives me a great sense of joy and accomplishment.”

The initiative is also valuable for the airline and airport team members, especially those who work onboard the aircraft. Because of ICTFA, staff can better understand the difficulties that those traveling with autism or anxiety may face and how to proactively provide the most helpful assistance during the journey.

Since its inception in 2014, ICTFA has hosted over 2,100 families and almost 7,250 participants in over 30 domestic airports; and American Airlines says plans are underway for expansion.

child enters plane during It's Cool to Fly session
source: American Airlines

Sickler says participants are often surprised to learn about available disability-serving resources. This includes a Special Assistance Desk (routed through American Airlines Reservations Agents) and TSA Cares, a dedicated helpline for travelers with disabilities/medical conditions during the security screening process.

“After the event, it is common for parents to feel better prepared for travel. It opens the world to them and they are infinitely grateful to have this opportunity to practice the total travel experience (including a high-speed taxi) before they buy their tickets. They show a huge amount of appreciation toward American Airlines for supporting them and for hosting this program,” Sickler tells AmeriDisability.

Sometimes parents learn that their child is not yet ready for air travel. When that happens, Sickler says, parents ask to participate in a second ICTFA event. He says, “They ask me ‘When is the next event?’ We’d like to try this again to get our child ready to fly. I know they’ll do better with more practice.’” And that is often the case.

boy holding wooden toy airplane

Upcoming Sessions 

Here’s the schedule for upcoming ICTFA events:

  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) — Date: 9/10/22 | Time: 10 am – 12 pm
  • Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) — Date: 9/17/22 | Time: 10 am-12 pm
  • John Wayne Santa Ana Airport (SNA) — Date: 10/22/22 | Time: 1 pm -3 pm
  • Montgomery Regional Airport (MGM) — Date: 3/11/23 Time: 10 am – 12 pm

Is the ICTFA program something that your family will explore in preparation for air travel?

Nancy DeVault
Nancy is the managing editor of AmeriDisability. She is an award-winning storyteller passionate about health and happiness.

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