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Flight Anxiety

Winding through the obstacle course that is airport travel these days can be stressful for anyone.

But imagine being the parent of a special needs child who is expected to wind through a maze of body scanners, security employees, baggage area, ticket counters and, finally, the narrow aisles of the airplane.

This was on Dawn Watson's mind when she reached out to Horizon Airlines, asking if the company in turn would agree to reach out to parents of special needs children.

Watson, whose son is autistic, said airport travel can be tough for kids with disabilities.

"They sometimes don't know what is going to happen next," Watson said. "It's strange for them to have to wait in lines and deal with security. It can cause anxiety."

Watson sits on the board of Families For Community, an organization that advocates for families of children with disabilities.

The group joined Horizon on Saturday for a special trial walk-through of 25 special needs kids at the Rogue Valley Airport.

The goal was to introduce the kids with the logistics of airport travel. In addition, airport staff was able to see what worked best in terms of meeting their needs.

Emilie Sampson, who is the executive director of Families for Community, said the practice run could alleviate the stress of traveling with a special needs child.

"The kids will see first-hand what it's like to check bags and stand in line," she said. "My son is autistic and travel was very stressful for us."

The Medford airport was the only airport served by Horizon to pilot the practice run.

The project was made to feel like true airplane travel. The kids waited in line with their bags, which they either checked or took on board.

They were then ushered to the security lines, where security directed them though the scanner.

They then boarded a plane and received the safety talk from a stewardess. The run ended with a brief taxi ride in around the airfield and a return to the baggage claim area.

Marci Krull jumped at the chance to introduce her 10-year-old daughter McKenna to airport travel.

"This is a good way to get this under her belt in case there is an emergency and we have to fly," Krull said. "It's better to have her prepared than to introduce her to this at the last minute."

Amanda Anderson, an in-flight supervisor attendant for Horizon, said airport and airline employees can learn a lot by listening to the concerns of parents with special needs kids.

"We want them to be able to travel with ease," Anderson said. "This is a great experience for all of us."

The Transportation Security Administration offers a help line to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. TSA recommends passengers call 72 hours before travel for information about what to expect during the security screening. Travelers can call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 if they have questions.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Participant Brennan Pelphrey holds his boarding pass during the Opening the Skies Experience Saturday at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport. - Julia Moore