From a glance at the lobby of Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport Saturday afternoon, you'd think spring break had started already. Dozens of children and their parents waited, boarding passes in hand, gathered for a 4 p.m. flight.
But what appeared to be a mass exodus for some sunny destination was actually a novel exercise by Alaska Airlines and Families For Community, a local advocacy group for special-needs children, intended to expose both potential travelers and airline staff to the nuances of flying for people with disabilities.
Kimberly Larsen, Families for Community's executive director, says this is the second year the organization has held the event in cooperation with the airline. Larsen, whose son is on the autism spectrum, says the experience of flying can be very stressful for many with disabilities, enough so that many parents of special-needs children have avoided air travel altogether.
In 2013, the airline and community group held its first "practice flight" to give people with disabilities the opportunity to experience going through security, boarding, taxiing and de-planing. Partnering with the airport and the Transportation Security Administration, the airline made one of its planes and pilots available for use by the group. The event went so well, drawing over 50 people, that many of the adult participants returned this year as volunteer staff members, Larsen says. It was also a hit with airline employees.
"From that, we've helped them develop their own program," she says. "It's something they felt a need for in their own travel area."
Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Janet Osborne, watching a little boy go through security in his wheelchair, says the hands-on approach is great training for staff members. "We've already done a few in Seattle and Anchorage," she says, adding that the company is looking to expand the program to other airports. "The other piece is our partnership with the community," she says.
While it's uncertain how frequently the airline will hold the practice flights, Osborne says the company would like to make them as frequent as possible. "It would be nice to have it be an annual event," she says.