Future Reflections        Winter 2014        TRAVEL

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Frequent Flyer: Preparing Your Child for Independent Travel with the Airlines

by Faith Rosenshein Young

From the Editor: For blind adults proficient in the skills of blindness, independent travel by air presents few obstacles. In fact, our biggest problem may be dealing with unwanted and unnecessary offers of help. However, a blind child traveling alone, like any child, needs to learn what to expect and how to negotiate the complexities of ticketing, security, boarding, and in-flight behavior. For a blind child with additional disabilities, this learning process may pose unique challenges. In this article, Faith Young explains how she taught her son, Ronen, to travel independently by plane.

Ronen Young rides in an all-terrain wheelchair.Often people are surprised when they learn that our seventeen-year-old son, Ronen, travels back and forth to school independently. Their reaction takes me aback. Ronen prides himself on his independence. I never questioned that he would travel independently--everywhere.

Our situation is a bit unusual, which may help explain some of the reactions we encounter. We live in Illinois, and our son attends the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. Furthermore, Ronen is deaf-blind with multiple disabilities, including a physical disability. People are stunned when they find out that Ronen has mastered the art of air travel. In today's world, though, this ability should not be surprising. With a little planning and plenty of practice, almost any child can master independent air travel. Six-year-olds travel solo, so why shouldn't Ronen go it alone?

Ronen has been traveling with our family since he was an infant. Therefore, his first trip to school on the airplane was not his first plane ride. If it were, it would have prolonged our timeline toward independence, but it wouldn't have changed the outcome. Ronen enrolled at Perkins when he was fourteen, and after nine months he was able to fly to and from Boston by himself.

When Ronen began to attend Perkins, I traveled back and forth with him as an escort. During these trips, I went step by step with Ronen through the processes of checking in, requesting assistance, clearing security, and checking in at the gate. Ronen learned to speak politely to the airline and TSA agents and to answer their questions with a verbal response. He learned to ask to gate check his wheelchair, and he understood that the procedures differ, depending on the airline. Also, Ronen quickly learned that he needed to remove his laptop and BrailleNote from his backpack--and to open the BrailleNote. Most TSA agents are unfamiliar with this device, and a closed case will usually cause a delay in clearing security.

In addition, Ronen learned to ask for a male assist as he approaches security. Ronen wears orthotics that contain metal. It is very difficult to remove and replace them, so it is easier for him to submit to a pat down each time he goes through security. Finally, Ronen learned to ask to pre-board when he reaches the gate.

Once on the plane, Ronen needed to learn about airline etiquette. I recall one trip when I shadowed him. Although polite, Ronen spoke incessantly to the man sitting next to him, and he sang as if he were alone in the shower for the entire two-hour trip! Upon exiting, a kindly woman turned to him and said, "I so enjoyed your singing. You have a lovely voice." She had been sitting at least six rows behind him!

After that trip, Ronen's school social worker used an adapted version of "Riding in an Airplane," a selection from Social Behavior Mapping by Michelle Garcia Winner. The exercises helped refine Ronen's social skills and behavior when flying. With the help of this tool, Ronen learned the behaviors that others expect from him when he flies. He learned how other people feel when they notice such behaviors, the positive results of demonstrating such behaviors, and the positive feelings he experiences as a result. Ronen also learned about unexpected behaviors, the way these behaviors make other people feel, the negative results of demonstrating such behaviors, and the negative feelings he experiences as a result.

The Teaching Process, Step by Step

Eventually, Ronen mastered the skills that enable him to fly solo. Now the flight crews compliment us on Ronen's behavior. People marvel at Ronen's skill and ask how I taught him to fly independently. As with everything, the devil is in the details, and those will vary based on individual needs. A high-level teaching process, however, might look something like this.

1.         Pick one airline to fly consistently. Choose an airline that offers direct flights to your most frequent destinations. Check the website to learn about the disability services the airline offers. Services vary by carrier, but all must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

2.         Select a back-up airline, just in case. We have needed to use an alternate carrier due to changes in flight schedule, flight unavailability, or route unavailability.

3.         Join the frequent flyer programs of your selected primary and secondary airlines, and sign up your child as well. Airlines like to build loyalty. Air travel is costly, and you need to accumulate all the rewards and discounts you can gather.

4.         Contact TSA Cares. (See the Resources section at the end of this article.) Discuss screening policies and procedures and the expectations at security checkpoints. You can download a Disability Notification Card from the TSA website. This card does not exempt the holder from screening, but it does allow the holder to alert TSA agents to special concerns in a private manner. I printed off several of these cards when Ronen started to fly to school and taught him to hand them to all the TSA agents. The cards enable him to communicate about his medical conditions and disabilities without having to make a public statement. Ronen keeps a card in his wallet and another one with his passport. On the TSA Kids website, TSA also offers resources for traveling with children that explain the screening process. The website provides a video and a transcript that you can download and convert to a Braille ready file (BRF). You may also contact your local TSA office about special readiness training programs. Some TSA offices offer special programs; staff will walk children with special needs through the TSA screening process during off-peak hours in preparation for a future flight.

5.         Take a webinar. Ronen and I took a webinar through the Association for Airline Passenger Rights prior to his shadow trip. If I were aware of these webinars earlier, I would have introduced them at the beginning of the teaching process. Fortunately, you can access past webinars from the TSA archive site. Some webinars are Power Point presentations (a few with text only or RTF options), and some are audio files. Many have both options available.

6.         After you book your reservation online, call and speak with an agent. Explain your child's special needs and describe any accommodations he or she will need. You can set up a courtesy wheelchair, arm escort, and/or similar assistance when you book your flight. You may also call the airline and book directly through an agent without incurring any reservation fees.

7.         If your child is young and has not flown before, read books about travel by airplane. Some possibilities include Going on a Plane by Anne Civardi (Usborne First Experiences, E.D.C. Publishing, 2005), The Noisy Airplane Ride by Mike Downs (Tricycle Press, 2005), Airport by Byron Barton (HarperCollins, 1987), and Amazing Airplanes by Tony Mitton (Kingfisher, 2005). Though these books are written for young children, the information is relevant to the total flight experience. It is appropriate for sharing with older children who need concise information in simple terms. Unfortunately, I have not found any of these books in Braille format. Check with Bookshare, your local librarian, or your state library service for additional recommendations and options for making them accessible to your child.

8.         Do a "walk-through" at home. Create social stories for any part of the process that may be causing your child anxiety.

9.         Travel with your child several times as an escort. When escorting your child, explain what you are doing and why you are doing it. Review the success of the trip, plan modifications and adaptations, practice at home, then escort your child again until you have completed several successful (i.e., uneventful) escort trips.

10.       Plan a silent escort trip. On this trip, you escort your child, but pretend you are not there. When you arrive at the airport, inform ticketing agents of your plan. While standing nearby, let your child navigate the entire flight process alone, from departure to arrival. Only intervene if your child directly asks for help. If your child asks for help and is capable of managing the task alone, provide gentle reassurance and step back. Provide direct assistance only if necessary. Take notes so you can review the success of the trip and plan modifications or adaptations later. Remember to celebrate your child's successful trip.

11.       Plan a shadow trip. After a successful silent escort trip, the next trip should be a shadow trip. This trip is very similar to a silent escort trip, but this time you remain at a distance behind your child. Your child has the sense of being alone, yet you are there to intervene if necessary for safety. Your child should have the confidence to travel alone at this point and should not need any assurances from you once travel has begun. Again, take notes for review later (note the singing incident I shared earlier).

12.       Schedule an independent flight. Pick a route your child has traveled frequently. If possible, arrange for your child to call the airline and book the flight as well as requesting any necessary accommodations.

13.       Request a Gate Pass. Passengers with disabilities who require assistance in excess of a courtesy wheelchair or arm escort can request a Gate Pass. Airlines issue Gate Passes at their discretion at the time of flight departure or arrival, but we have never had a problem obtaining one to help our son. Staff from Ronen's school have received them without any trouble, too. Make sure to arrive at the airport at least an hour before the flight will board or arrive. You will have to clear security, so remember all TSA security requirements apply to you, also. You must present a valid identification to the ticket and TSA agents.

14.       Celebrate success!


The Internet has many resources that support air travel for children and for people with special needs. Here are a few that I find most helpful.

TSA Cares Information—
(contains link for Disability Notification Card for Air Travel)

TSA Kids—
(Main Page with Prepare for Takeoff video and transcript, and Parents Page)

Association for Airline Passenger Rights (AAPR) Archives—

Friendship Circles, A Comprehensive Guide to Special Needs Travel—

Disabled World Travel: Accessible Disability Travel Information—

Mobility International USA Air Travel Tips for People with Disabilities—

Chicago Department of Aviation Accessibility Information and Assistance— <www.flychicago.com/OHare/EN/AtAirport/Facilities/Accessibility/default.aspx>

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