Many people are afraid of flying. In fact, according to the National Association of Mental Health, about 25 percent of the population has some form of anxiety when it comes to air travel. About 6.5 percent have aviophobia, a fear of flying so intense that it keeps their feet firmly on the ground.

For those with developmental disabilities, the fear of flying can be especially severe. Even before the plane takes off, they’re met with a variety of experiences that can induce anxiety – from airport security procedures, to being surrounded by people rushing to make connections, to moving sidewalks and shuttles.

Today commercial airlines including United, Delta and Southwest, have procedures in place to assist the developmentally disabled should they require help thanks to the Air Carrier Access Act. However, flight crews often fall short of their responsibilities; unclear of what they need to do for the disabled traveler.

“Recent incidents highlight the need for a guidance document focusing on developmental disabilities, to assist individuals on the autism spectrum and individuals with other developmental disabilities know their rights,” the Department of Transportation recently said in an article for Disability Scoop.


Dry Runs Help People Fly Calmer

While airline policy changes can certainly help make air travel easier for the developmentally disabled, planning ahead for the upcoming flight with dry runs can reduce anticipatory anxiety for a better flying experience.

One of the most successful dry run programs is Wings for Autism, operated by The Arc, the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Wings for Autism is an airport “rehearsal” program for those with autism spectrum.

As part of the program, participants experience what it’s like to enter the airport, get a boarding pass, go through security and board the plane. Once on the plane, they sit in seats, get a drink from the cart, and listen to attendants explain safety procedures. Some flights may be delayed to keep it true-to-life. After the flight, the participants can meet the pilot.

The dry runs serve an additional purpose: Transportation Security Administration and airline employees can observe the participant’s challenges and reactions so they can better understand how to react and help when it comes time for the actual flight.

“It’s hopefully going to alleviate a lot of fears and anxiety and provide a great opportunity for communication to practice talking about what’s going to happen on the flight,” Jana Kennedy, a mother who recently took part in a Wings for Autism dry run at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston with her child. “To have something tangible for them to see and practice with should really help better their flight experience.”

Currently, Wings for Autism offers dry runs in various U.S. airports with plans on expanding to more cities in the next year.

Other programs across the country that offer dry runs for the developmentally disabled include Detroit Metro Airport’s On-Board with Autism and Philadelphia International Airport’s Airport Autism Access.

In fact, today there are about 15 airports in the U.S. that offer dry run programs. You can find them at major airports in Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, New York, Phoenix, Newark, Atlanta, Washington D.C. (at Ronald Reagan and Dulles), Greensboro, NC, Tulsa, and Manchester, NC.


Tips for Flying with the Developmentally Disabled

Check with your local airport to see if they offer any dry run programs. If not, try a rehearsal on your own. You won’t be able to board a plane or go through security, but you can visit the airport beforehand to get your disabled traveler used to the experience.

  • When possible, book nonstop flights to avoid the hassle of layovers, missed connections and the fear of more take offs and landings.
  • Request bulkhead seats (those without seats in front of you) so the traveler doesn’t bother other passengers by kicking seats
  • Bring toys or electronics like iPhones and iPads, along with books for comfort and distraction
  • Bring proof of the passenger’s disability

Thanks to dry runs, and a little extra planning, the world can open up for those with developmental disabilities, who find flying a scary experience.

Photo credit: