Christina Mendez and her 16-year-old son Damian drove to John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York on a Saturday afternoon. But they didn’t go anywhere. Mendez was helping Damian, who has autism, get acquainted with flying. He’s never been on an airplane.
Damian and his mother practiced checking in, walking through security and boarding a plane. Once on board, they fastened their seat belts; a flight attendant offered them snacks. Then the A320 aircraft pulled away from the gate for 20 minutes so Damian could experience the plane in motion.
“He was just so excited to sit in a plane, and to interact with the flight attendants and see the cockpit,” says Ms. Mendez.
Around 300 children and their families gathered at JetBlue’s Terminal 5 as part of the inaugural Blue Horizons for Autism, a new program from JetBlue and Autism Speaks that aims to help kids with autism become familiar with flying. It’s the first autism travel practice event ever held at JFK–one of the nation’s busiest airports. The Transportation Safety Authority and the Port Authority also participated in the September 21 event.
Damian has outgrown many of the anxiety-induced behaviors apparent in some younger children with autism. He doesn’t like long lines or being confined to an unfamiliar place, says Ms. Mendez, whose work as a plus-size model requires her to travel frequently–and she often chooses JetBlue.
Reaching more families like the Mendezes is partly what drove the airline to create its own branded program, though it has participated in Wings for Autism in Boston and California. JetBlue hopes Blue Horizons will help the airline foster familiarity with its planes, staff, and even its blue-themed snacks, and make it the airline of choice among families of children with autism.
In aligning with Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism advocacy group, JetBlue also is able to tap into a powerful disability organization with a community of around two million people in the U.S. Blue Horizons will allow JetBlue, which is headquartered in New York City, to run the program in its own JetBlue terminals around the country.
What’s more, most of the staff volunteered their time under the company’s new corporate social responsibility program, Inspiring Humanity, which aims to “better the lives” of JetBlue’s customers and the communities it serves. Another travel provider that caters to families of kids with autism is Wyndham Worldwide, which provided a grant for the program.
With one in 88 children having autism, it’s a good time for airlines and other travel providers to fold special needs into their customer programs and services. A couple of weeks ago, the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization updated its accessible tourism guidelines. Among the WTO’s recommendations: Hiring staff that knows how to communicate with persons with sensory disabilities, and training them in disability awareness and customer care in order to minimize their barriers to travel.
The merits of a both a well-trained and humanity-inspiring staff were in full effect at Terminal 5 on Saturday. The plane may have only left the gate briefly, but among many of these families, courage and newfound contentment –and perhaps a deeper affinity for JetBlue–took flight.
This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.