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How flights to nowhere can help ‘lessen the anxiety’ for travelers with autism

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  • Breeze Airways hosted a boarding demonstration for travelers with autism on April 30.
  • The exercise was part of Breeze’s partnership with Autism Double-Checked, an organization that aims to make travel more streamlined for travelers on the autism spectrum.
  • The airline said they hope to provide more notice for future events.

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PROVO, Utah ― Breeze Airways’ flight 9951 to Provo, Utah, on April 30 was a lot like any other flight: all the pre-departure announcements were made in the gate area, passengers boarded by zone, the flight attendants gave their safety demonstration, snacks were served – the whole nine yards. But the plane never left the ground.

That’s because flight 9951 was a different kind of trip for the passengers and staff onboard.

“We don’t fly much in general, and with them, we’ve been intimidated by the process,” passenger Travis Hoki said pointing to his son. “Max is doing well, and we figured this group would be understanding if he’s loud and crazy.” 

Max, Hoki’s 3-year-old son, has autism, and flight 9951 was designed for travelers like him to get familiarized with air travel.

“It’s an opportunity to do something that’s just so meaningful for a group of travelers that, in many cases, wouldn’t be travelers if it weren’t for this type of event,” said Breeze Airways’ President Tom Doxey. “When you can do an event like this, and especially if it’s in a smaller community … it’s even more meaningful.” 

The boarding demonstration on April 30 was Breeze’s third such exercise, but it was the airline’s first in Provo. The previous two took place in Hartford, Connecticut.

The exercise is part of Breeze’s partnership with Autism Double-Checked, an organization that aims to make travel more streamlined for travelers on the autism spectrum.

“From a passenger point of view, this isn’t a one-and-done,” Alan Day, co-founder and CEO of Autism Double-Checked, told USA TODAY. He said many travelers with autism take a long time to feel comfortable in new environments and exercises like the Breeze boarding demonstration are just one way they can get more familiar with how air travel operates.

“The goal is to make it blend together so it becomes seamless,” Day added.

The gate area in Provo was crowded and a little rowdy as guests waited for the exercise to start. Many of the participants knew each other from specialized schools in the area or from parent networks. In many ways it was like any other flight – kids played with toys and ran around the terminal before boarding began.

Onboard, the scene was a little louder than on an average trip. People were chatty and excited on the plane. They may not have observed the seatbelt sign as closely as they would have needed to on a real flight, but overall the experience was pretty authentic.

Breeze flight attendants received training in how to interact with autistic passengers. The crewmembers who participated in the exercise on April 30 all did so as volunteers on their own time.

Their training included practical advice for making travel easier for those with autism, such as closing the bins more softly to avoid making a sudden or unexpected noise.

Although the plane remained on the ground, passengers onboard had the full flight experience. Flight attendants checked to ensure everyone was buckled up after the boarding door closed and came around with snacks. The pilot made an announcement about estimated flight time (5 minutes, although the flight got to the gate early), and the cabin crew passed through the aisles again before arrival to collect trash.

One passenger excitedly noted to USA TODAY that she had never flown before, and it was her first time using airplane mode on her phone on an actual airplane.

For participants, the experience meant future travel would be easier.

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Breeze and Autism Double Checked advertised the event through local neurodiversity groups and institutions, and said they often partner closely with the host city to get the word out. Spokespeople for the airline said this first event in Provo came together pretty quickly and that advertising was a “grassroots effort” that happened mostly through word of mouth, but that they hope to provide more notice for future events. Some prospective participants heard about the April 30 demonstration too close to the start, so there’s already interest in a repeat.

“We’re getting ready to go on a big family reunion trip this summer,” Kohleen Jones, whose sons Miles, 8, and Alden, 5, both have autism, told USA TODAY. “When we heard of this we were immediately like, ‘we should take advantage of this.’ ”

Both boys even brought practice carry-on luggage in preparation for their trip, and Jones said the exercise was a chance for her kids to ask questions and see what flying is like.

“Just to practice to lessen the anxiety when we’re actually going on our real trip,” she said.

The Hoki family felt the same way.

“We’ve wanted to take our kids on a plane but have felt intimidated,” Lindsey Hoki told USA TODAY. “We saw it, and we were very excited.” 

In addition to the boarding exercises, Breeze Airways has made ongoing commitments to be more supportive of travelers with autism. As part of their partnership with Autism Double-Checked, they will publish a travel guide and institute an autism concierge helpline so travelers have a point person to reach out to for accommodations ahead of their trips. They’ll also begin accepting the organization’s autism passport, a document that travelers can fill out once and submit to any participating travel company. It contains information about the specifics of their condition and what kind of accommodations they may need.

“This should be commonplace,” Day said. “We want to make the special, commonplace.” 

The reporter on this story received access to this event from Breeze Airways. USA TODAY maintains editorial control of content. 

Have you, or someone you know, had issues with accessibility while traveling? What happened?

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at zwichter@usatoday.com.

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