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New Miami airport program preps passengers with special needs for flight

A new program at Miami International Airport is designed to help travelers with special needs become familiar with the check-in process, shown here, and with security procedures in advance of their flights.
A new program at Miami International Airport is designed to help travelers with special needs become familiar with the check-in process, shown here, and with security procedures in advance of their flights. AP

Passengers with special needs will soon find a new resource at Miami International Airport — a program that lets passengers practice the check-in and security checkpoint process before the day of their flight.

MIAair — the “air” stands for “airport instruction and readiness” — simulates the checking-in, security and boarding process through prescheduled tours for passengers with special needs and their families. The airport is introducing the program Tuesday and plans to host tours three times annually starting in 2016.

“They get to have a dress rehearsal of the travel experience,” said Dickie Davis, the airport’s public and customer relations director. “People, especially people with autism but other disabilities too, need that confidence building.”

Most airports, including MIA, provide assistance to travelers with special needs on the day of the flight, whether it be a wheelchair or an oxygen tank waiting for passengers when they disembark. But MIAair, Davis said, will assuage travelers’ anxiety before the flight itself.

“When the actual day comes, everyone’s more comfortable,” she said.

The airport partnered with the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and the University of Miami’s Department of Otolaryngology to develop the program, focusing on a range of disabilities from Parkinson’s to hearing loss.

“We thought this would be a good opportunity to educate everyone,” including airport staff and other passengers in addition to those with special needs, said Dr. Ivette Cejas, who directs the cochlear implant center at the University of Miami’s UHealth Ear Institute and partnered with the MIAair program. Airports, where announcements are often broadcast over speakers, can be especially confusing for people with hearing impairments, she added.

Vivian Casola, whose 19-year-old son Anthony has developmental delays and hearing problems, said she and her family had avoided airports almost entirely since his diagnosis. For his birthdays, the Casola family had driven to Disney World in Orlando instead of taking flights.

“We’ve been trying to get him to go on an airplane, but he was very adamant, afraid and scared,” Casola said.

In July, she and Anthony attended an early MIAair test-run, where TSA staged a practice security check and American Airlines provided a plane to practice boarding. Three weeks later, they traveled to Orlando by air for the first time.

Anthony, his mother said, was thrilled. “He told us he wasn’t afraid anymore,” Casola said.

Their family has already booked their next flight — they plan to fly to California next year and go to Disneyland, which Anthony has never visited.

“When they walk into a place that is so crowded and unfamiliar to them, they get anxious, they get scared,” Casola said. The program, she said, “definitely eased Anthony’s anxiety and our anxiety … many, many families are going to benefit from this program.”

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