SENSE Lab, American Airlines collaborate on ‘It’s Cool to Fly American’ flight simulation for individuals with disabilities

Flying on a plane for the first time can be anxiety-inducing for anyone, let alone an individual with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD). With the help of autism researchers, local disability organizations, and Nashville International Airport (BNA) staff volunteers, individuals with IDD and their families were treated to a rare opportunity of air travel experience, from ticketing and security to boarding and a quick taxi across the BNA tarmac, all without having to buy a plane ticket.

Headshot of Blythe Corbett, Ph.D.

Blythe Corbett, Ph.D.

VKC Investigator Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., and her Social Emotional NeuroScience Endocrinology (SENSE) Lab staff worked closely with “It’s Cool to Fly American” creator and coordinator Bruce Sickler and American Airlines to bring the flight simulation to Nashville for the first time. More than 130 people who signed up for the event experienced everything a paying passenger experiences just shy of actual “wheels up.” This was made possible by BNA and AA staff who volunteered their time to assist with the simulation. The entire flight crew flew from their respective home bases to take part in the experience. Staff and volunteers were stationed throughout the airport with “It’s Cool to Fly American” tee shirts and balloons marking the way to the gate.

“The SENSE Lab works with children, adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorder and related neurodevelopment disorders. Erica Allen, a representative from American Airlines reached out to me, knowing our interest in and support of persons with developmental disabilities,” said Corbett. “Subsequently, we worked with Bruce Sickler and his team to spread the word and provide support for the event.”

Various intellectual and developmental disabilities were represented among the attendees, as were the emotions. There were a few jitters among the passengers, including their family members who would join them on board. Some of the parents had never flown themselves, such as Melissa Basham, who was there with her husband Eric and son Drew, 20, who has autism.

“I’m excited for this! It’s gonna be awesome,” said Drew, while Melissa agreed, “It’s helping Mom, too.”

Dena DiVito was there with her son Micah, 14, also on the autism spectrum. Micah stood at the window and watched as the previous passengers deplaned and the crew prepared the plane for its next passengers.

“This is so amazing. I don’t think anyone understands how little things are big things in our lives,” Dena said. “Every step toward the gate was a step of courage for him.”

SENSE lab members smiling at airport gate C-12

‘It’s Cool to Fly American’ volunteers get ready to board an American Airlines plane for a taxi around the BNA tarmac with first-time travelers with disabilities and their families.

Passengers lined up at the gate with assigned numbers on their “tickets.” Once seated, the pilots took the plane around the tarmac, even increasing to a speed similar to takeoff. There were several occasions when the cabin broke out in happy and excited applause! Once back at the terminal, passengers were treated to AA swag bags with coloring sheets, headphones, and even information from TSA on how to access special accommodations for passengers with disabilities.

“The children and families who participated in the ‘It’s Cool to Fly American’ event were thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in a travel rehearsal,” said Corbett. “The simulation was realistic on every level to include the wait before the departure and the acceleration and deceleration of the runway flight.  I think the event went extremely well and it exceeded my expectations.”

Autism Tennessee staff member Amy Correia gave her Saturday afternoon to support the passengers and their families.

“I’m thankful for this opportunity for our families to practice travel. It’s so important to be a part of everyday life, and I thank American Airlines for making a place for our families. Their staff is so well-trained.”

Two ladies who arrived at their gate especially early for a flight to London by way of Chicago were able to observe the excitement from the travelers and watched each of them board the plane.

“I’m so glad we had the opportunity to see this,” one of them said. “It made getting here hours before our flight worth it.”

“I was impressed by the vision of Bruce Sickler and his commitment to people with disabilities as well as the support provided by all the volunteers from American Airlines, TSA, and the BNA airport in collaboration with organizations who work with people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities such as SENSE, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, and Autism Speaks,” said Corbett. “It really is cool to partner with such a committed team of volunteers!”

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.


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