When Linda Diaz was planning a family vacation to Disney World four years ago, she called Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to see what could be done to make flying a successful experience for her son, Andy, who has autism.
"He doesn't like people to touch him and he's nonverbal," the White Bear Lake mother said. "He can get aggressive."
The airport didn't have any programs available to familiarize Andy, now 13, with the TSA screening process or with flying, and airport tours were canceled after the Sept. 11 attacks. So Diaz canceled the family's flights and instead drove 1,500 miles to Orlando.
"It was just easier to drive," she said.
Shortly after that long drive to Disney World, a program was launched at MSP to help make flying a reality for kids like Andy.
What started as a grass-roots effort in 2013 to ease the journey for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, the name for a group of developmental disorders that include autism, has evolved into "Navigating MSP," monthly practice runs for anyone - special needs or otherwise - who has concerns about flying.
Volunteers with the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Fraser, which provides services for people with special needs, Delta Air Lines, and the Autism Society of Minnesota come together once a month to guide hopeful travelers through airport security, to their gates and onto an actual plane with pilots and flight attendants.
Shelly Lopez, the MAC's administrative and emergency programs coordinator, helped develop the program after she saw similar programs in Atlanta and Boston.
"It's easy to do this when you hear stories from families who have to drive to Disney World because they're afraid to fly," she said.
Julie Tarshish was one of those parents.
"We'd never flown before, just road trips, because of our fear of flying with them," the Golden Valley mother said.
Among her list of fears? "Not knowing what to expect and if staff would be kind and accommodating," she said.
After completing the program twice with her 7-year-old twin sons, the Tarshish family had a smooth flying experience during a family vacation.
"There's a lot of fear and a lot of unknowns, especially for the kids who have sensory needs," said Delta captain Andrea Ratfield, who has a 7-year-old son with autism and volunteers for the Navigating MSP program. "Loud noises, moving walkways - doing this tour give those children a visual reference so that when they come again, it's not so overwhelming."
'YOU WILL FLY'
Now that Andy is a few years older, his first plane ride is on the horizon with an upcoming trip to Panama for Thanksgiving. On a recent Saturday afternoon, alongside dozens of other families, Diaz checked in at a security desk at MSP with Andy and her daughter, Jaynie.
While some families "checked" bags, showed their passports or pet Getty, the comfort dog, Andy clung to two crucial carry-on items: an iPad and Toy Story Woody doll.
George Callow, a TSA officer, met the family to guide them through security.
Like others helping families that day, Callow is a volunteer with Navigating MSP as a passenger support specialist who is dedicated to improving the travel experience for passengers with special needs.
Although Navigating MSP started as a program for children with autism, Callow said people of all ages and abilities are finding value in a travel-day trial run.
A 50-year-old man with an intense fear of flying participated in Navigating MSP with his adult children to prepare for a family vacation. Another man was referred to the program when he was hesitant to fly with an ostomy bag.
"It's the fear of the unknown. So many people don't think they can come through the airport," Callow said. "We will screen you, but you will fly."
Callow said TSA agents are trained to handle every possible situation. Security is high for everyone, but there are procedures in place so that everyone who wants to fly is able to fly.
Since Andy wasn't able to go through the X-ray security system with his special needs stroller, a TSA agent completed a manual check of the chair and his hands.
With the hard part over, it was time for the highlight of the day: boarding a Boeing 737 jetliner.
After the final family arrived at the gate, Ratfield greeted the families over the loudspeaker: "Welcome aboard our flight to nowhere."
FLIGHT TO NOWHERE
After greeting the pilot and flight attendants, 44 passengers made their way to their seats. Andy had other plans. Overwhelmed by his new surroundings, he barreled down the aisle of the plane, looking for a way out.
Navigating MSP volunteers sprung into action and defused the situation, wisely suggesting that Andy might be most comfortable in the front row. They were right. Once seated, Andy leaned in and kissed his mother on the cheek.
Other children practiced lowering the tables in front of them and opening their window shades. Parents listened intently as two Delta pilots - both with children on the autism spectrum - shared their personal travel tips.
"I bring little chocolate treat bags for the people around me, and we spread autism awareness," Ratfield said. "Then, God forbid my son has a hard time, which happens, people around us know. When you communicate with others, they're so much more open to helping."
Before exiting the plane, passengers could flush the toilets in the bathroom and take photos on the flight deck with the captains.
Back inside the terminal, Diaz said she thought it would be a good idea for Andy to go through the program once more before their flight to Panama.
"We'll make sure we upgrade our seats to first class," she said. "Now we know he likes the front row."