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Warren woman acts as caregiver, friend for those who need help traveling

Posted April 04, 2012, at 12:29 p.m.
Last modified April 04, 2012, at 5:29 p.m.
Sonja Burns (right) helps Vicki Ritchie turn around after she was checked by audiologist,  Dr. Carolyn Gaiero (left) Tuesday in Belfast.  Burns is an RN and she provides care for people at her home. She also offers a flight companion service for medical patients.
Sonja Burns (right) helps Vicki Ritchie turn around after she was checked by audiologist, Dr. Carolyn Gaiero (left) Tuesday in Belfast. Burns is an RN and she provides care for people at her home. She also offers a flight companion service for medical patients. Buy Photo
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Sonja Burns
Air Companions logo

WARREN, Maine — When Sonja Burns’ 80-year-old grandmother tripped and fell down the length of an escalator while flying by herself to Florida to visit old friends, she didn’t break any bones or suffer any obvious physical injuries.

But the accident still had far-reaching consequences for her and her family.

“When you’re an older person, and you have a traumatic event like that, it does something to you,” Burns said recently from her Warren home. “It did something to her. She started to go downhill.”

Her grandmother was never the same again — and neither was Burns, a licensed practical nurse with decades of experience helping people, including caring for people with special needs in her home. That tough airport experience planted the seeds of an idea for Burns’ business, Air Companions Inc.

Through the service, she will travel with the elderly, the disabled, the impaired, those who are afraid of flying and those who need medical attention. Her motto is, “We are your guardian angels in the air,” and she is committed to making sure vulnerable people get to where they are going safely and with dignity. Although the business has already provided her with challenges including an earthquake, she loves what she does.

“I just like the adventure of it. I like the whole thing, the challenge of it,” Burns said. “Meeting a stranger and having them trust me. Them being happy with my service. I just like it — it’s fun for me. Not to say it never gets stressful!”

In fact, the first trip she made with Air Companions, back in 2010, posed a major challenge when no one realized that the elderly, ill woman in Florida she was taking back home to Maine had no photo identification until she got to the airport.

“When you’re elderly, you stop driving. You no longer have a picture ID,” Burns said, adding that she’s grateful it happened at a small airport in the south, with a very kind-hearted staff.

“The security people were outstandingly wonderful,” she said. “They let her go, but I learned a valuable lesson.”

That’s a lesson that’s come in handy — other elderly folks she has since escorted also have not had valid photo identification, but it’s now on Burns’ checklist to make sure they do before they fly.

Another, more complicated journey happened when Burns was hired in 2010 to safely escort an elderly couple from an Illinois nursing home to Maine to be close to their daughter. Both suffered from dementia, and the husband also was wheelchair bound and ill with Parkinson’s disease.

“It was very difficult,” Burns said. “Any sicker, and I couldn’t have brought them home on a commercial plane.”

But with her husband’s help, she did it.

“We brought them home,” she said.

Valerie Taylor of Freeport was the daughter, and she said this week that she highly recommends Burns and Air Companions to safely bring loved ones to their destinations.

“She did a great job,” Taylor said, adding that her parents both passed away not long after their trip home. “She was very respectful, tender and treated them with dignity. At the same time, she saw to their needs and delivered them safely into my hands.”

Because Burns is a nurse, she was able to administer medication to her mother, which gave the family peace of mind.

“Much like a friend and a nurse — it was a nice balance,” Taylor said.

Another of Burns’ clients is a woman with Down syndrome who lives in a San Jose group home and needed to travel east to visit her brother in Washington, D.C.

“She was a very nice lady. I liked her a lot,” Burns said.

The two were sitting in the plane on the tarmac near the capital last summer when the 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit, causing the airport to close.

“We sat on the plane for an extra hour,” she said. “Rose and I just had a good time.”

She credits some of her ease with problem solving and organizing to years of being a single mother before remarrying.

“Mothers have to do everything,” Burns said. “Think on their feet. Deal with emergencies.”

She said that hers is one of the country’s few businesses concentrating on helping people travel safely. There is another in Atlanta.

“There’s not a lot of people who do it,” Burns said.

Because she is still building Air Companions, she is willing to negotiate prices with her clients, who must pay for all her own traveling expenses on the job and a basic rate of $50 per hour when she is with a traveler. When she’s not with the traveler, she charges $250 for a day of traveling to where she’s going.

“If they rented a special plane, it would be tens of thousands of dollars,” Burns said. “Even though I’m not cheap, [my services are] way less expensive than that.”

Taylor said Burns helped her work out the different possibilities for bringing her parents home.

“She did all the legwork and information gathering, and gave me options,” she said. “It worked out very well.”

That’s Burns’ goal.

“I just was born to be a caregiver, that’s all,” she said.

For information, call Sonja Burns at 975-9262 or visit her website, aircompanions.com.

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