Maria Brockman of Lawrence is terrified. She is flying alone with her 8-year-old son, Jack, and 2 year-old daughter, Evelyn, on an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. And even though Jack, who has autism, has improved dramatically in traveling on planes, he could just as well revert to past behavior and disintegrate into a full tantrum during the flight.
For Brockman and other parents of kids with special needs, the singular challenge in air travel is not in all the hoops that need to be jumped through to get from point A to point B, but in the unpredictable provocations that can derail even the most carefully thought-out trip. Whether a child has sensory processing issues that can trigger anxiety attacks or medical conditions that necessitate delicate handling, travel for families with special needs requires patience and fortitude — and even more preplanning than usual.
The Transportation Safety Administration does have a system on paper for accommodating people with disabilities. But the variance on how that system is structured and implemented is as wide as the number of U.S. airports. And the allowances that the TSA makes for medical equipment and assistive devices are subject to limitations, some of which are not defined in their online memo regarding persons with disabilities.
Fred and Jane Fergus of Lawrence found this out firsthand last year as they traveled with their 4-month-old son, Franklin. While on a medical trip to Philadelphia, the Ferguses were informed by doctors that their son, who has neurofibromatosis, only had days to live. In shock and despair, they wanted only to get back home but found out that Franklin’s oxygen supply was not allowed on the plane since they did not give 48 hours notice to the airline. Desperate to get home, they opted to risk going without the oxygen for the length of the flight. Franklin managed, but the level of stress on his parents was immense.
Challenges notwithstanding, air travel is still the fastest mode of transportation. Being informed, prepared and flexible will go a long way in making the trip smoother. Take the following into account on your next flight.
Check-in and baggage
Long lines at check-in can start the stress signals going, and you’re barely even in the airport. Checking in online makes this first hurdle much easier. Many airlines have curbside baggage stations — well-worth the extra fee for having a porter handle your luggage (about $5/bag, not including tip). Another consideration is shipping your bags by UPS or other courier, especially if you are traveling alone with children.
This is arguably the busiest point of getting to the plane — ID and boarding pass, shoes, keys, computer, bins, metal detector, wands, conveyor belt, shoes again — it’s like an absurd obstacle course. Some airports have an exclusive line for families with children and for people with disabilities. If there is no such line, do not be shy about asking a security guard to guide you to the front. People with disabilities or prosthetics are not required to remove their shoes at security but may be subject to other screening.
Liquids and other substances
Going through security will be much easier if you follow the regulations for carrying on liquids. Liquids (gels, aerosols, medicines, lotions) under 3 ounces each should be placed together in a quart-sized clear zip bag. Medically necessary liquids over 3 ounces must be declared to a TSA officer and kept separate from the other baggage. It is highly recommended that you have a note from a doctor to support your child’s need for medically necessary liquids.
All airports are wheelchair-accessible, but call the airline to find out what their procedures are for a gate check of the wheelchair. If your child needs assistance onto the plane, ask for the airline’s narrow aisle wheelchair to be on hand at boarding and de-boarding. Once de-boarded, your child’s wheelchair will be brought to you.
Nothing’s worse (well, almost nothing) than lugging your heavy car seat or your specially purchased harness onto the airplane only to be told that it is not FAA-approved and has to be stowed. So do your homework here and call the manufacturer to confirm this before the flight. Kids under 2 are not required to have a paid ticket and can sit in a parent’s lap, but consider that this can get tiresome on a long flight. The bulkhead of a cabin has extra leg space, and some airlines reserve this space for people with disabilities, so call ahead to ask for this.
From the loud drone of the plane’s engine to the crackling of the pilot’s announcements, a flight is filled with unfamiliar noises and sights. If your child has sensory integration issues, these may be overwhelming. Bring whatever calms your child and allow him or her to use it as much as necessary, even if it is the handheld game that you usually restrict at home.
Flight delays and cancellations are not sent from above to punish you; it only seems like it. Make the best of the situation by breathing deep and patting yourself on the back for having had the foresight to pack a few extra granola bars.
Traveling with kids with special needs is not easy, but there is a certain badge of honor that goes to parents who have done it. Jane Fergus — whose son, Franklin, has defied the doctor’s predictions and is now 20 months old — says, “We refuse to let special needs dictate what we do or where we go. We travel with Franklin and have had such fun. It takes practice and patience to make it work, but it can be done.”