At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a pop-up lounge just for kids (and their parents) is moving through the terminals.
Called the “Fly with Butch O’Hare” lounge, it’s described as a place to relax, take selfies, re-charge cell phones and devices and to learn about the Fly with Butch O’Hare mobile game the airport developed in collaboration with DeVry University.
First, who was Butch O’Hare? He’s the airport’s namesake, Edward “Butch” O’Hare – and this year marks the 75th anniversary of Butch O’Hare’s heroic actions in World War II, saving the aircraft carrier Lexington.
He was honored with the Navy’s first Medal of Honor, and in 1949 Chicago’s airport, Orchard Field was renamed Chicago O’Hare in his honor.
The lounge is outfitted with chairs and foot stools, cell phone charging stations, the airport code in 8 – f00t-tall letters, orange flooring and a miniature plane flying overhead with – you guessed it – Butch O’Hare.
There’s also an almost life-size cut-out of O’Hare and a plane – for selfies.
ORD is also giving out flat photos of Butch O’Hare (on a stick) in the lounge and at bins in the domestic terminals and encouraging passengers to pose with the flat Butch O’Hare while in the airport or and around the world and post their photos online with the hashtag #FlyWithButchOHare.
Looking for the lounge? It’s in Terminal 1, near Gate B12 through August 9 and then moving to Terminal 2, near Gate E1, from August 10 through 31.
Vacationing-hungry families, (still) low oil prices and an overall strong demand for air travel are just a few of the reasons industry trade group Airlines for America expects a record number of passengers (234.1 million) to travel worldwide on U.S. airlines this season.
That’s good news for airlines, but full planes and the extra fees many airlines charge for pres-electing a seat means families may have trouble getting seated together on airplanes.
And it means it may be as likely for a business flyer to have a cranky kid as a seatmate this summer as a networking-worthy company CEO.
A families-flying-together rule that was part of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2016 was supposed to make it mandatory for airlines to seat families together without charging extra fees, but “The rulemaking for this law has never taken place,” said Charles Leocha, co-founder of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United.
“The Obama administration dragged its feet, despite pleadings by some consumer groups, and the current administration still doesn’t have the rulemaking personnel in place at the Department of Transportation,” said Leocha.
So families flying this summer “are still on their own,” said Suzanne Kelleher, a family travel expert at Tripsavvy.com, although some airlines say their go out of their way to try to seat families together.
Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t have assigned seats, gives families traveling with children six years or younger a head start in the boarding process, allowing them to board before the “B” boarding group, which usually insures families can get seats together.
“American Airlines’ reservations system checks for families traveling with children 13 and under a few days before the flight and seats each child with an adult,” said airline spokesperson Ross Feinstein, “If the automated system doesn’t find adjacent seats for families, our agents will assist families at the gate.”
At United Airlines, “flight attendants and agents work to keep families seated together and will ask customers onboard to move seats to accommodate families,” said United spokesperson Charles Hobart.
If preassigned seats haven’t been secured, “Check in online 24 hours before your flight, when you should be able to see your seat assignments,” says family travel expert Kelleher, “If you see that your seats are not together, call your airline’s customer service center.”
And if sitting together as a family is a priority, “It can be worth it to shell out the extra cost for ‘premium seats’ to make sure to get seats together,” she said.
Kids flying solo
Not all families fly together during the summer; thousands of must kids fly alone to camp, to grandma’s house or between divorced parents.
Each airline has its own set of rules, rates and programs for unaccompanied minors – UMs – so it is important to do some research before purchasing a ticket.
For example, some airlines require that UMs fly only direct or nonstop flights and never on a connecting flight at the end of the day. Others limit the number of unaccompanied minors that can be booked on each flight or decline to carry UMs during inclement weather, when delays and re-routings are common. Some airlines will provide a special meal for kids, while others make a point of reminding parents to pack sandwiches and snacks for their kids.
Fee-wise, Alaska Airlines offers mandatory unaccompnaied minor service for kids age 5 to 12 and optional UM service for kids 13 to 17 on both domestic and international flights. The cost is $25 each way for direct flights and $50 each way for a one-way trip with connecting flights.
The fee for UMs age 5 through 11 on Southwest Airlines is $50 each way.
Both American Airlines and Delta Airlines charge $150 a one-way fee for unaccompanied minors 5-14 years of age. American will allow two more UMs from the same family to fly together for that fee; Delta will charge only one fee for up to four children traveling together.
“For kids flying on their own as unaccompanied minors, the most important thing is to make sure they are prepared for the trip,” says Kelleher, “Take stock of a child’s maturity, go over the rules about what to do in various situations such as delays or other changes and make sure they have a smartphone so they can communicate with trusted adults at the departure and arrival airports.”
Avoiding kids on planes
Business travelers know there’s no sure-fire way to avoid getting seated next to a kid on an airplane, but there are some ways to improve the chances of getting some kid-free peace and quiet.
A few international airlines have designated kid-free zones on their planes. Singapore’s Scoot Airlines has a ScootinSilence economy cabin zone that bars passengers under 12 years of age, while only passengers 10 years of age and older are permitted to be seated in Quiet Zone on AirAsiaX flights.
“For business travelers who are serious about being productive on flights, it’s well worth the cost to upgrade to business or first class,” said Karl Rosander, founder and CEO of podcast platform Acast. The limited number of seats lowers, but doesn’t eliminate, the chances of being seated near a family with small children, said Rosander, “But I also never board a plane without noise canceling headphones.”
(A slightly different version of my story about flying with – or without – kids this summer first appeared on CNBC.)
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.
Not content to rest on the laurels of being named highest in guest satisfaction in this year’s J.D. Power North American Airport Satisfaction Study, Portland International Airport is forging ahead with new amenities for travelers.
This week it’s a cool new play area for kids on Concourse D near Gate D7. that has places for parents to sit, shoe cubbies, sculpted foam play elements (I see a plane, a bunny, a duck, a deer, and is that a pickle??) on a soft safety flooring system.
And if you’re traveling this week, be on the lookout for holiday decorations, music, and visits by Santa Claus and his elves in many U.S. airports.
On Tuesday, December 20, for example, the Austin Jazz Workshop is performing holiday hits from 1-2 p.m at Austin Bergstrom International Airport and on Wednesday, December 21, Santa will stop by Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport from 10 am to Noon for a meet and greet – and photo ops – on the ticketing level in the terminal.
Now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s time to get going on that holiday shopping list.
And for the third year in a row, Pittsburgh International Airport will be doing its part by hosting a one-day Holiday Open House – on Saturday, December 3 – where the general public gets access to all the post-security airport shops.
The airport updated and upgraded its mix of local and high-end retail shops and restaurants not too long ago with the likes of Martini, Vino Volo, Strip Market, Armani Jeans, Hugo Boss, Harley Davidson and Sportzburgh and on December 3 will have an on-site Santa, music, free parking and a wide variety of retail and dining specials.
It’s a great event for locals, of course, but a reminder for anyone passing through PIT Airport to check out the shops anytime. Especially because in Pennsylvania there’s no tax on most clothing – and shoes.
Registration details for the Open House and a list of specials for the day are here.
And next time you’re at PIT Airport, make your way over to Concourse C, where there’s a new and improved Kidsport as well.