Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Helping People with Special Needs Take to the Skies

There is hope and help for families feeling grounded by fear. KMSP Fox 9's Amy Hockert has this special report.

MINNEAPOLIS — Flying is stressful and it can be even harder if you’re traveling with someone who has special needs.

There is hope and help, though, for families feeling grounded by fear through a new program in Minneapolis that’s looking to be a national model.

When you’re little, life is full of unexpected moments.

When you’re little and you have autism, unexpected moments can send life into a tail spin.

For 6-year-old Freya and her family, this trip to the airport isn’t about traveling to some far off destination.

It’s about staying one small step ahead of surprises.

“So, we’re going up the escalator and then go through security so you have to go through some metal detectors,” explained Margo Anderson to Freya.

It’s the first Saturday of the month and the family is meeting up with a group called Navigating MSP.

It’s a program sponsored by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, supported by volunteers from the Autism Society and Delta Airlines, among others.

The idea is to help families who have special needs, like autism get familiar with traveling at their own pace.

“I was kinda nervous my first time,” said Jake Brasch, who has been through the program several times.

Now, he’s a volunteer, coming back to inspire others with stories of success.

“I took Uber to the airport on my own and met mom down in Phoenix,” Jake said. “I was proud of myself and surprised how well I did.”

But before families can take flight, they’ll have to break through a lot of hurdles; things most of us take for granted.

The amount of patience it takes to move through security, the long, sometimes really long walks to the gate, filling the down time.

That’s before they even get to the plane.

“We do everything except push back from the gate,” said Delta pilot, Rich Kargel.

Kargel was the first person at MSP to step up and volunteer for this program.

His son, Shane, has autism and Kargel says he’s his father’s inspiration.

“Knowing that I’ve been there and basically letting them know it’s going to be alright,” Kargel said about parents he meets.

Also here today, the Loving family.

This is their third mock flight and they’re hoping to get their 13-year-old son, Riley, acclimated before an upcoming vacation to the east coast.

So far, the practice is paying off for everyone.

“He likes the window a lot,” Riley’s dad said. “He doesn’t like the aisle. He doesn’t like the middle. Now we know.”

But all the groundwork and best laid plans aside, there are always questions, always doubts.

Special needs or not, as a rule, kids melt down at 40,000 feet.

Things that can help are anything familiar and repetitive: a video screen, a favorite toy, even something like a customized story about what’s coming next.

With the mock flight now over, the families haven’t left the gate, but they’ve come a long way.

“The family had never flown before,” said Kargel, remembering a family helped by the program. “Always wanted to, but because of their family dynamic, they didn’t think it was at all possible. The father got out of the aircraft, right off the jet bridge and looked at me with a tear coming down his eye and mouthed ‘thank you.’ That’s the reward we get from doing this.”

Because when you’re given wings, not even the sky is the limit.

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