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Queens Chronicle

Helping those with autism take flight

JetBlue, TSA and JFK personnel guide patients, families in realistic exercise

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Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:55 am, Thu Oct 3, 2013.

The modern means of boarding a commercial airplane can tax the most seasoned traveler with the combination of check-in counters, baggage checks, safety screening checkpoints and every airline with its own boarding procedures.

But when a family member has autism, the change, hectic pace and unfamiliar surroundings can cause difficulties.

On Saturday, JetBlue and the organization Autism Speaks teamed up to give patients, their families and those who work at Kennedy Airport the opportunity to practice with each other in order to ease everyone’s stress when the families fly for real in the future.

Lisa Goring, of Autism Speaks, said the idea was to make the drill, which took place at JetBlue’s Terminal 5, as realistic a flying experience as possible so that both the families and airline and airport personnel can be more comfortable with each other.

She said when they put out the word in the community that they were looking for families to volunteer, they filled up the first day, resulting in more than 200 people participating

“They did a great job,” Goring said of the airline and airport personnel. “We welcome any opportunity to offset the challenges people with autism face ... They went to the ticket counter, passed through security with the [Transportation Safety Administration], sat at the gate and boarded the plane.”

She said JetBlue cabin and flight crews were on hand in uniform, and that ground crews pulled the plane from the gate to allow it to taxi around the airport, all to make the experience as genuine as possible.

Goring said they had been working on the project for months, and that JetBlue has had similar run-throughs at Boston’s Logan Airport for several years.

Kate Wetzel, manager of corporate social responsibility at the airline, said it started with requests from JetBlue’s ground and flight personnel. And she said the airline considers Saturday’s experience to be as valuable to them as it is to the families.

“This came up from our crew members,” Wetzel said. “Those people are in a special and unique position to observe the needs of passengers with autism and their families, and we are frequently looking at how best to serve them.”

She said JetBlue closely monitored the program as it does any regular training exercise, and will study and report on the results.

Wetzel said there were only two instances where children unfamiliar with the experience began to have difficulties.

One was a family with two children when they approached the TSA checkpoints. The other was a little girl who had difficulty in the air bridge, the tunnel that connects the gate with the plane’s entrance.

“She couldn’t see the end of the air bridge,” Wetzel said.

But she and Goring said they made sure to have trained autism specialists on hand for the entire exercise, and that the day went by without any major difficulties.

Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Safety Administration, said their agency also welcomed the opportunity.

She pointed out that TSA agents are often called upon to work with passengers who have a wide range of medical conditions or disabilities.

“We welcome the opportunity to do everything in our power to help families pass through screening and make their experience a more comfortable one,” Farbstein said.

She was unable to attend the exercise, but said reports from TSA supervisors at JFK were very positive.

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