On the morning of Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, an Allegiant Airlines plane will land at Bangor International Airport as scheduled. On that day, however, it won’t take back off at its usual time — it will stop on the tarmac for several hours so that 156 people with developmental disabilities and their guardians can experience what it’s like to get on a plane.
Wings For All is a program organized by national disability rights group The Arc to help people with autism and other developmental disabilities become more comfortable with the different aspects of flying. The February Wings For All event at BIA will be the first to happen in Maine, and is the result of more than a year’s worth of collaboration between the airport, Allegiant, the Transportation Security Administration and the Autism Society of Maine.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” Aimee Thibodeau, marketing director for BIA, said. “It’s something that’s really important to us, as members of the community, to make sure travel is easier for all kinds of families.”
On the day of the event, families that have registered will arrive at the airport in time for an 11 a.m. check-in. They will bring their carry-on luggage, they will go to the counter to get their “ticket,” they will go through security screening with the TSA, they will wait at the gate and then they will board the plane and talk to the pilot. Almost everything about the air travel experience will happen during the event — except for the fact that the plane won’t actually take off.
Cathy Dionne, executive director of the Autism Society of Maine, said the idea is to make traveling a less scary experience for people with autism and other developmental disabilities — it is, as The Arc calls it, a “rehearsal.”
“It allows families to really know what to expect when a person with autism goes to fly for the first time,” she said. “There may be claustrophobia. They may get overwhelmed by crowds, or noise, or lights. They may need to see what the ramp is like. All those things can be scary for the first time, but if they know what to expect, it’ll be much less scary on the second try.”
Wings For All was started in 2011 by the Boston-based Charles River Center, an organization that supports people with developmental disabilities, and its first event was held at Logan International Airport. The program is now managed outside of Massachusetts by The Arc, and there are regular events at major airports including both Dulles and Ronald Reagan in Washington D.C., Phoenix Sky Harbor, and Seattle-Tacoma, as well as at Logan.
Dionne said Allegiant has donated the use of one of their planes for several hours on the morning of Feb. 1, and BIA will host a reception afterwards for participants. Allegiant has hosted a number of Wings For All events at airports across the country, and the TSA has its own internal program, TSA Cares, which works with special needs passengers to ensure a smooth flying experience.
Registration for the Bangor event is currently open, though Dionne said each individual with a disability that signs up may be accompanied by no more than two parents or guardians, so that there is enough room for as many people as possible.
“It’s geared toward kids, but any person with a developmental disability, child or adult, that has never flown before and is nervous about it or is afraid is welcome to attend,” Dionne said.
To register, visit The Arc website.