family travel

Airports, vacation spots get autism-friendly

Courtesy The Arc

 

Travel can be really stressful. Even scary sometimes.

For families who have children with autism and/or other intellectual and developmental disabilities, the trip to and through the airport, and on to grandma’s house or a vacation in another city, can be just too difficult to even consider.

But there are programs and truly caring people out there who are trying to make that process a little easier.

Here’s a slightly shortened version of my piece on autism-friendly travel efforts I wrote for NBC News:

Because her almost 5-year-old son Matthias has sensory issues associated with autism Latonya Bingham’s family only takes vacations to places they can reach by car, sometimes leaving the house at 2 a.m. when the roads are calm and quiet.

Bingham would love to take Matthias on a trip by plane, so this week mother and son signed up for an  air travel ‘rehearsal’ at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

The program allows families to practice going to the airport, passing through security, waiting in the gate area and getting onto a plane — all without the cost and commitment of a plane ticket — and is coordinated by The Arc, a Washington, D.C. organization that has hosted 75 similar events at more than 40 airports around the country.

Matthias has issues with crowds and loud noises, so Bingham was worried Matthias would have problems with the TSA experience and the boarding process, but all went smoothly until Matthias was on the plane, where “He felt too enclosed,” said Matthias, “He preferred the window to be open – and was ready to get off after 5 minutes.”

The chance to do an airport test run definitely made a difference for Katy Guerra’s son Danny, a 10-year-old with autism who doesn’t do well with change or fast-paced environments.

The military family is used to moving but has never had the opportunity to move together as a family overseas.

“We had put off taking trips because we didn’t want to be ‘that family,'” said Guerra, “and Danny has always made it clear he cannot go in airplanes because the air is too thin. So we knew there would be some issues.”

But after going through one of The Arc’s Wings for Autism programs, (also known as Wings for All) and spending two months preparing, Danny took his first plane ride: a 14-hour flight to Seoul, South Korea.

Test runs like this not only give families a chance to see how a child with a special need will react to the airport experience, they give airport, airline and TSA employees a chance to learn and practice how to interact with children and adults who have autism and/or other intellectual and developmental disabilities as well.

Sensory Rooms and Autism-Friendly Travel Destinations

In April 2016 Delta Air Lines opened a quiet, multisensory room at the Atlanta airport with a mini ball pit, bubbling water sculpture, tactile activity panel and other items to help ease the airport experience for customers traveling with children on the autism spectrum.

Myrtle Beach International Airport in South Carolina opened a “quiet room” for people with special needs not long after, and this month, Europe’s first airport sensory room for passengers with autism opened at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.

In the tourism-focused Myrtle Beach area “autism-friendly” goes beyond the airport.

The new $3.2 million ADA-approved Savannah’s Playground has special sensory-friendly features, there’s a quiet room for people with autism at the Myrtle Beach Speedway and, with a special card secured online or in-town locations, families can secure special accommodations for a child with autism at area attractions, hotels and restaurants where staff has been specially trained.

And to make sure potential visitors know the community gets that traveling with kids who have autism can be especially chaotic and unpredictable, in January, 2016 the town council in Surfside Beach, on the southern end of the Myrtle Beach, signed a proclamation declaring the area to be the first official autism-friendly travel destination.

 

Tips on dealing with the electronics ban on planes

 

 

Travelers are trying to figure out how to deal with new government rules placing an indefinite ban on electronic devices larger than smartphones from the cabins of commercial aircraft flying to both the United States and the United Kingdom from certain countries.

Canada is also considering joining the electronics ban for flights.

Here are some tips and things to consider if you’re booked on one of these flights, taken from my story on this topic for NBC News Travel.

 

In the United States, the ban covers nine airlines (Royal Jordanian, EgyptAir, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabia Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates Air and Etihad Airways) and direct flights to the U.S. from 10 specific airports listed here.

In the United Kingdom, the ban covers inbound flights from six countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

“The ban means there is probably intelligence indicating a terrorist group or individual has been planning to detonate a device on board a commercial airplane, using an electronic to either hide an explosive, or as a triggering device for an explosive,” said aviation safety and security expert Jeff Price.

The ban also means that, for the foreseeable future, travelers booked on more than 125 affected flights a day to the US and UK will have to put devices such as tablets, e-readers, cameras, laptops, portable DVD players, portable printers and scanners and video games in checked baggage.

Travelers are concerned not only about how they will spend their time during flights, but the fate of the devices checked in airplane holds.

“Am I seriously going to check a $3-5K dollar camera? Not a chance,” said Washington, D.C. –based writer and photographer Emily Troutman, via Twitter.

As the bans begin to go into effect, experts are sharing advice and tips for those currently booked – or about to be booked – on the affected flights.

“Back up all your data and save it to the cloud, arrive at the airport early, bring your phone charger or buy one at the airport, and bring some good material,” suggests travel pro Johnny Jet in a web post and try switching to connecting instead of a direct flight from one of the affected airports. “If you’re booked on the Emirate non-stop from Dubai to the U.S., you can also see if they’ll move you to one of their one-stops through Milan or Athens,” he said.

Other travel experts suggest loading work files, books, games and other entertainment onto phones and purchasing or bringing along an external keyboard to make typing and accessing the information easier.

“Upgrading to a larger memory phone might be in order,” said Farecompare CEO Rick Seaney, whose research shows the ban will initially affect approximately 126 flights a day to the US and UK, with over 40,000 potentially inconvenienced fliers.

Families traveling with children, who have come to rely on movie and game-filled tablets for entertainment, should make sure to pack “some good old-fashioned unplugged entertainment, such as books, puzzle books, and coloring pads,” said Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, family travel expert at About.com.

And this may be a good time to explore the offerings on the affected airlines’ in-flight entertainment, some of which is quite extensive.

Not long after the ban was announced, Middle East carrier Emirates posted a “Who Needs Tablet and Laptops Anyway?” Tweet with a reminder that the airline offers “Over 2500 channels of the latest, movies, box sets, live sport and kids TV.”

While in-flight entertainment on a long flight is helpful, it won’t replace laptops for many travelers.

The ban “is simply unworkable for most business travelers. They need to be productive during their trips,” said the Business Travel Coalition in a statement, “Many business travelers do not check luggage, even on long flights as it slows them down upon arrival at baggage claim. Now they will have to check their electronics with many paying for the privilege.”

For those concerned about gear getting lost or stolen, insurance coverage from the airlines, travel insurance providers and certain credit cards may be helpful, “But the primary concern for most business travelers regarding the theft of electronic devices isn’t the value of the device itself, it’s the value/sensitivity of the data stored on the device,” said Max Leitschuh, iJET International Airline Safety Analyst.

Another option? Not checking electronic devices at all. “My recommendation is to ship your electronics to your destination,” said aviation security and safety expert Jeff Price, “There’s no way I’d put my laptop in checked baggage. And those little locks they sell can be defeated in about 15 seconds with a good paperclip.”

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Airports add pet potties & play areas; dump pay phones, banks

Modern-day airports no longer concentrate solely on being gateways to help passengers get from here to there.

That’s still their key role, of course. But today the focus is also on making the airport experience efficient and enjoyable for travelers – and profitable for the airports – through an ever-improving mix of dining and shopping options and an evolving mix of amenities.

“Whether engaging with passengers through an animal therapy program to instill a sense of calm in a busy terminal or providing ample electrical charging stations for mobile devices, airports are committed to not only meeting passengers’ expectations but exceeding them.” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International – North America.

A recent survey by the airport membership organization identified the top 10 airport amenities in North America, the top amenities airports are adding and several amenities many airports say they will likely be eliminating in the next few years.

According to ACI-NA’s Passenger Amenities Survey, the top 10 most commonly offered airport amenities and services are:

  1. ATM Services
  2. Gift Shops / News Stands
  3. Airport Websites
  4. Electrical Charging Stations
  5. Restaurants and Bars
  6. Lost and Found
  7. Parking / Taxi and Limousine Services
  8. Free Wi-Fi
  9. Pre-Security Pet Relief Facilities
  10. Food and Beverage Vending Machines

No surprises there, but among the amenities on the rise are some designed to make traveling with kids – and pets – a bit easier:

  1. Nursing mothers’ rooms and pods
  2. Post-security pet relief facilities
  3. Children’s play areas
  4. Airfield observation areas
  5. Adult changing and washroom facilities.

In part to make way for these new amenities, airports say that over the next three to five years they’ll be phasing out and, in some cases, eliminating a few other amenities.

So get ready to say goodbye to smoking rooms, payphones and bank branches at airports.

ATMs are plentiful at many airports, but staffed bank branches are already quite rare.

One holdout is Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where there is a branch of Wings Financial.

“The local bank has a built-in customer base, as they began as a credit union for airline and airport employees,” said airport spokeswoman Melissa Scovronski, “So we don’t expect to eliminate that service.”

Smoking lounges still exist at just a handful of major U.S. airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but in 2016, Salt Lake City International Airport closed all its smoking rooms and by the end 2018 the last remaining smoking lounge at Denver International Airport will end its contract.

And those once ubiquitous banks of pay phones at airports are being replaced with charging stations or making way for other services.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport removed the last of its payphones in 2016.

With the rise of cell phones, “Folks simply don’t use pay phones,” said SEA spokesman Brian DeRoy, “And there are hardly any companies now that want to have the financial burden of taking on a pay phone contract for a very limited number of users.”

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has also ditched all its payphones, but provides a courtesy phone for free local calls next to the information desk on the baggage claim level.

“Our information desk staff can also make calls for passengers when needed, such as when cell phones batteries are dead,” said AUS spokesman Derick Hackett.

The number of payphones is being steadily reduced, but not yet eliminated, at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Minneapolis and Chicago, where there are now 503 payphones at O’Hare International (down from 650 five years ago) and 174 payphones at Midway International (down from 180).

“The payphones taken off line were removed because of low usage, requests from the airlines due to construction in their gate areas and repurposing of space for revenue producing ventures,” said Gregg Cunningham of the Chicago Department of Aviation, but some will remain “because they are still a necessary means of communication for some customers.”

At Reno-Tahoe International Airport, free local or toll free calls can be made from any courtesy phone in the airport.

“In 2008, AT&T ended their payphone contract at the airport, at same time they pulled out of shopping malls and other public buildings due to decreases in revenue,” said RNO airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared, “But the airport authority knew an option was needed to fill that void since not all travelers have a cell phone.”

And, totally bucking the no-payphone trend, thanks to a deal dating back to 2012, Denver International Airport still has about 200 payphones in the terminal and on the concourses that provide unlimited free national domestic calls and international calls that are free for the first 10 minutes.

(A slightly different of this story about airport amenities appeared on CNBC)

Cat in the Hat at LAX Airport

Today is the birthday of Theodor Geisel – better known to most of us as Dr. Seuss – the author and illustrator of books such as “The Cat in the Hat,” “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Horton Hears a Who!”

To mark the day, airport police officers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) will hold a “Dr. Seuss Hour” from 10 to 11 a.m. as part of Read Across America Day.

During that hour, officers will read books to kids and adults and the Cat in the Hat will pose for photos with travelers. The LAX PUPs (Pets Unstressing Passengers) and their handlers will be on hand as well.

Kids who attend the Dr. Seuss Hour will get souvenir travel bags with copies of Dr. Seuss’s book, LAX activity coloring books, and “Cat in the Hat Read Every Day” bookmarks.

And don forget:

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

 

 

Party at Pittsburgh Int’l Airport

PIT Trading card one

There’s a party going on at Pittsburgh International Airport this week, as part of a renewed commitment to celebrate the region’s local institutions, food, music and culture in the airport.

So far this week there’s been live music, visits by sports mascots, a display of (replica) Egyptian relics from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and a class in hieroglyphics. The Carnegie Science Center distributed liquid nitrogen ice cream, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum brought by some history displays and the Phipps Conservatory let passengers pot their own air plants.

The party continues today – Sept 15 – with a live African penguin from the National Aviary, button-making hosted by The Andy Warhol Museum, a steel drum band and free popcorn.

Andy Warhol Wallpaper at PIT

Friday, Sept. 16, the entertainment includes live reptiles from the Pittsburgh Zoo and a musical theater performance.

Sounds like fun!