Long delays, rampant cancellations and packed planes have turned air travel into an endurance sport for even the most seasoned travelers. And the challenges can be even greater for the more than 25 million Americans with disabilities that make travel difficult even in ordinary times.
A handful of airports, airlines and community groups have made an effort to provide certain flyers the opportunity to navigate security, crowded airport terminals and the boarding process beforehand. But such programs are limited, and the industry continues to have a poor track record in transporting wheelchairs and scooters and providing reliable and consistent service to passengers with additional needs such as mobility and physical issues as well as sensory and cognitive disabilities.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is out to change that.
In an industry first in May, the airport — in partnership with Delta Air Lines — installed a mock airplane cabin on-site to give flyers with a wide range of special needs an opportunity to become familiar with a realistic aircraft cabin.
“Being able to test out an airplane cabin could help people who have never flown, who use wheelchairs, older adults, people with autism, and anyone who has any reservations about flying,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization, which works with businesses on accessibility issues, “It will recognize that everyone’s needs are different and encourage more people to fly.”
In the two years preceding the pandemic, nearly 15 million people with disabilities traveled by air, generating $11 billion in revenue for airlines. That was up from $9 billion in 2015, according to a report from the organization. And, he said, “The true economic impact is potentially double since people with disabilities typically travel with one or more other adults.”
The 33-foot-long cabin had been used to train Delta’s in-flight teams in Atlanta, and includes a (nonworking) lavatory and 42 standard coach seats from a retired Boeing 737. Delta shipped it in pieces to the Minneapolis airport, where it was reassembled in an unused retail space. Airport carpenters added cutouts so that every row has a window, and local youth artists painted the cabin and the surrounding walls with blue skies and landscape to make it sensory friendly.
“My 5-year-old son, Remi, has autism and I felt it was important for him to experience the airport before the day we actually had to travel,” said Cassandra Welch, who brought him to the mock cabin recently. “Remi did well and sat nicely in his seat and was able to see what the cabin looked like, and what the airplane bathroom looked like.”
Welch also brought along her family and some relatives. “We will be traveling together in August, so it was great that we could all be there for this experience.”
Tiffany Owen, a first responder, also wanted to give her traveling companion a chance to get acquainted with flying before she booked a trip. Hazy, a rescue pit bull, is Owen’s service dog and helps her manage stress and anxiety. The visit was arranged through Soldiers 6, a local nonprofit group that…