Children 'take flight' during Wings for Autism
Times News - 2/14/2018
Feb. 14--Four-year-old Logan Willis is fascinated with anything he can push. He got his fill of buttons and switches Tuesday in the cockpit of Allegiant Airlines Flight 9999 en route to the Bahamas.
Logan was one of many children who boarded the plane during the third annual Wings for Autism event Tuesday evening at Asheville Regional Airport. It's a "rehearsal" designed for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, their families and aviation professionals.
Roughly 140 people boarded the flight hypothetically departing for Nassau. The plane remained at the gate for the entire experience. Flight crews went through the boarding and landing procedures as if it was a normal flight. Flight attendants pushed meal carts down the aisle, handing children their wing pins.
While everyone was getting in their seats, Logan managed to sneak his way up to the cockpit where Pilot Capt. Alex Kopp showed him the ropes before "takeoff."
It's the second year Logan's parents, Bobby and Debbie Willis of Mills River, have taken their son on the flight.
"I do it just for the enjoyment of him," said Bobby. "It's something that we can all do that's related to what he has. He's able to do something that most kids don't have the opportunity to do."
"It helps us see his struggles, too," said Debbie. "When we fly with him, what we need to do as far as get him ready for the plane."
Originating with the Charles River Center, a local chapter of The Arc in Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts Port Authority, Wings for Autism is designed to alleviate some of the stress that families who have a child with autism experience when traveling by air.
"Personally it's my favorite event," said Lew Bleiweis, Asheville Regional's executive director. "To see the smiles on the kids' faces and the parents when they go through this experience, that can open a whole new world for them, because it's opening up that travel experience."
The program gives families the entire airport experience: entering the airport, obtaining boarding passes, going through security and boarding the plane. It's especially helpful for those who are concerned about their loved one's ability to handle an airport environment.
"New circumstances and environments can be very scary for people with autism," said Bleiweis. "So this acclimates them before the actual trip. It can reduce the stress levels not for the children and adults with autism, but it reduces the stress levels for the parents. It makes them more manageable."
The event also gives airport, airline, TSA professionals and other personnel the opportunity to observe and interact, and deliver their services in a structured, learning environment.
Registration for the free event opened Jan. 22. Within a week and a half, all the spots were filled up.
"It's somethings that we just want to continue," Bleiweis said. "As long as there's a need in the community, it's something that we plan to continue."
The event is hosted by The Arc of Buncombe County, the airport and Allegiant Air, and is also supported by the Transportation Security Administration and Bojangles.
Allegiant has worked with the airport for the past three years. The airline typically does about 10 similar flights each year across the country.
"One of the things we're really passionate about is making air travel accessible for everyone," said Allegiant spokesperson Krysta Levy.
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