PHILADELPHIA – At 8 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Southwest Airlines Flight 2149 was poised to push back from the gate. Flight attendants gave fasten-seat belt instructions, and First Officer Peter Hayes announced, “There’s 25 minutes of flight time until we touch down in Philadelphia.” Capt. Todd Siems said the Boeing airliner was cruising at 37,000 feet. And after he turned off the seat belt sign, the young passengers were served complimentary Sprite, cranberry apple juice and airplane-shaped crackers.
Flight 2149 never left the gate at Philadelphia International Airport, though. It was a practice exercise for children with autism and their families to become familiar with air travel – carrying bags, getting boarding passes, going through security, waiting at the gate and sitting on the plane.
“I’m going to China, but we won’t really,” said an imaginative Gena Catanese, 5, of North Wales, Pa., accompanied by her parents and sisters Isabella, 6, and Emma, 3.
Just 18 months ago, Gena had a traumatic travel experience on vacation in Orlando. She expected to pre-board the plane with her family, but the protocol was she could pre-board only with one parent.
Gena became agitated and “over-stimulated,” her mother, Melanie Catanese, said. “There was no way she was able to fly home that day.” After receiving a frantic call, Gena’s pediatrician, Wendy Ross at Albert Einstein Medical Center, phoned and faxed letters to the Orlando airport.
“I thought, ‘This can never happen to one of my families again,’ ” Ross said. She contacted Philadelphia airport and Rick Dempsey, head of the airport’s Americans With Disabilities Act review committee.
“She wanted to bring a simulated airport experience for children with autism and their families,” Dempsey recalled. “The committee thought it was a great idea. The TSA bought into it. We even got an airline, Southwest, to buy into the idea.” Since then, there have been three “mock” flights.
“We asked the crews if they would mind sticking around for 30 to 40 minutes and go through a mock turnaround on a flight, as if we were flying somewhere,” said John Minor, Southwest’s local station manager.
“We let them know that autistic children are very literal, so we don’t want to say, ‘We’re flying to Disneyland,’ ” Minor said. “We just say, ‘This is a test run.’ ” Frontier Airlines plans to host a simulated flight for autistic children Dec. 11, and US Airways Group has one planned for January. British Airways also has expressed interest, Dempsey said.
In the spring, Ross trained 130 airport and airline employees about autism, a condition diagnosed in one in 100 children annually.
“It’s not something you outgrow, but if you get really good therapy you can cope better, compensate better,” Ross said.