- We're listening
The Spirit of United was on full display this holiday season at 13 Fantasy Flights at our airport locations across the globe. Together we brought joy and smiles to the faces of thousands of deserving children. Happy holidays from all here at United.
On Tuesday, Honolulu's Fantasy Flight took to the skies once again after a 17-year hiatus, much to the delight of some very deserving keiki.
The flight was scheduled as a nonstop leg to the North Pole, but after a scenic pass over Maui's Haleakalā volcano, the captain announced that they were diverting to "Christmas Island" so that Santa Claus could enjoy a last-minute vacation before his busy season begins.
A hangar at Honolulu airport served as the setting for the festive isle, decked out in full Polynesian/holiday décor (complete with a grass hut for Mr. and Mrs. Claus). Once they arrived, the children and their families were treated to a warm reception, with fun and games that included a 'ukulele workshop courtesy of Honolulu native and San Francisco-based Flight Attendant Leo Daquioag and several of his local musician friends.
"When they invited me to participate, I said yes without hesitating," Leo said. "The Fantasy Flights touch these families in such a special way, and our group embraced the opportunity to add some enjoyment through our 'ukulele playing."
To cap off the day, each child received gifts of toys, school supplies and much needed household necessities from Santa, with some of the items donated by Disney's Pixar Animation Studios.
Kids from the Ronald McDonald House, HUGS, INPEACE and Kapunahala Elementary School participated in this year's Fantasy Flight, which was coordinated by Honolulu-based Airport Operations Supervisor Liana Neff-Mausolf, a veteran of the original Honolulu Fantasy Flights years ago.
"They were so excited," she said of the children. "It started at 2 p.m., but people were already there at 10 a.m. to check in. And when they got to Christmas Island, they were ecstatic. One child, who has leukemia, was so tired but he didn't want to leave, so we brought in a couch for him so he could rest and still take part in the festivities."
Along with nearly 100 employee volunteers, Liana credits Honolulu-based Lead Customer Service Representative P.J. Valdez with helping to get the event off the ground again this year and Honolulu-based Flight Attendant Colleen Kahaku for recruiting the "Inflight elves" for the trip. And, according to Liana, you can expect to see more Honolulu Fantasy Flights.
"As we were cleaning up after the flight, we were talking about what we want to do next year," she said. "I'm already getting emails from employees who want to help."
Thirty years ago, San Antonio-based Lead Customer Service Representative Beth Reininger was asked by a colleague to help with San Antonio Airport's Fantasy Flight. Thirty years later, Beth has 30 Fantasy Flights under her belt, and a whole lot of love for all the kids she's met throughout the years.
"I come back every year for the kids. It's always been about the kiddos and making sure we give them memories that they will cherish forever," said Beth.
During her first few years as a volunteer, Beth couldn't make it through the event without getting sad, but with time, she learned to remember there's something to celebrate. "Their being here means they got another day, and that calls for a celebration of their lives."
All the kids hold a special place in Beth's heart, but there's one in particular whom she looks forward to seeing every year.
Sixteen-year-old Samantha has been attending San Antonio's Fantasy Flight for the past 12 years. After being diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer at the age of three, Samantha's family didn't imagine they'd be coming back to the event over the next 12 years.
"It's truly a miracle. I don't know what God's plan is for Samantha but he would never have let me keep her this long if he didn't have a plan," said Samantha's mom, Dulce Muckleroy. "I want United to understand what an amazing gift they're providing these kids, some of whom will never get a chance to leave their hometowns, let alone get on a plane, by putting on such a wonderful event for them."
Although, remarkably, now in remission, Samantha has never been able to grow hair. Despite what some would find embarrassing, she proudly embraces her bare scalp.
"She refuses to wear a wig because she says her bald head is a sign of courage," said Beth. "She's such an incredible young girl and an inspiration to me. Every single year, I look through the list to see if she's coming, because she gives us all hope that you can be a fighter and a survivor."
Although Beth has taken the role of coordinating the event each year, it takes many helping hands to create this unique and memorable experience for the kids – between decorating, purchasing presents, arranging food, gathering volunteers and much more, it's quite the team effort.
Thankfully for Beth, she has rock star volunteers in Houston-based Flight Attendants Janet Sweeney and Heather Graham and Houston-based 737 Captain Vern Robinson, who each volunteer to be part of the crew on San Antonio's Fantasy Flight, in addition to putting in time well before the event as preparations unfold.
"It really does take a village to pull this off, and there's no way I could do any of this without the help of all of the volunteers who put so much time and effort into this. Everyone's dedication is admirable," said Beth.
Despite the countless hours of hard work, the day of the Fantasy Flight is always Beth's favorite day of the year.
"For just a few hours, the kids, along with their parents and siblings, get to experience the magic of our winter wonderland," said Beth. "We give them an escape, and if their pain and worries go away for just those few precious hours, it makes it all worthwhile."
For decades, Fantasy Flights have been an annual holiday tradition in several of United's markets. For one day each December, our employees transform airport gate areas into a winter wonderland to give children afflicted by illness, poverty and special needs the experience of a lifetime.
Fantasy Flights transport kids to an entirely new world within our stations, complete with singing and dancing, toys, crafts and Santa Claus himself. The children and their families have the opportunity to board an actual aircraft, and then are taxied or, in some cases, flown to another gate, where employees created the magic of the North Pole.
The process of bringing Fantasy Flights to life begins long before December and is made possible due entirely to volunteers, who coordinate the festivities at each airport. Employees and retirees bake cookies, decorate hangars and gates, raise money and even dress up in holiday themed costumes.
This year, our domestic operations in Phoenix, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Washington D.C., Denver, Honolulu, London and Newark will each create a Fantasy Flight experience for local children to enjoy. And then there's one, perhaps less likely location for Kris Kringle's workshop: The South Pacific.
Since 2014 our station in Guam has held claim to the southernmost “North Pole-bound departure" in our system, treating youngsters to an unforgettable day. Guam Airport Operations Supervisors Tammy Castro and Jean Babauta have coordinated the event since its inception, with help from a wonderful team of volunteers from United.
“We first heard about Fantasy Flights in 2013," Tammy said. “Our former general manager Meg Parangalan said, 'The stations on the mainland are doing this, we should do one on Guam,' and that was the beginning of it. We held our first one the following year."
From there, the team was off and running, putting on a holiday fest that Guamanians could be proud of. There is a photo booth, a cookie decorating station, face painting, singers, food, candy and an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus (“our Santa has a real beard," Jean added with pride). Our employees also partnered with businesses to get donations of food and ornament-making kits so the children can craft their own decorations, a popular Fantasy Flight activity. And you know if Santa is around, then gifts are sure to follow.
Jean described Mr. Claus's unique delivery method: “After we land, everyone goes through the customs area, and when they get to the other side, there's a baggage carousel; on it are wrapped gifts for each one of the children, with big name tags. It's a lot of fun to watch them look for their box and open them up to see their presents inside."
The first year, the employees in Guam invited families from a low-income housing development. The second year they chose an organization dedicated to children with Down syndrome, and for last year's Fantasy Flight they worked with Parents Empowering Parents of Children with Disabilities, Inc. (PEP) and vision and hearing therapists at local schools to recruit participants.
Each Fantasy Flight is the result of months of preparation and countless hours of work on the part of United employees from all around the company, but that effort is rewarded tenfold the minute the children walk through the door and their faces light up.
Tammy and Jean each recounted their most vivid memories from the past couple of years. “The first year, I boarded the plane and flew with the group," Tammy said, “and I would say that probably 90 percent of the kids had never flown before. When we took off, they all started cheering, and that gave me goose bumps."
Jean expressed how important the Fantasy Flights are, not only for the children, but for their parents as well. “The parents feel acknowledged, and they are so appreciative and thankful for everything," she said. “It's nice to see all of that joy."
So, you might be thinking, what's the hardest part of recreating the North Pole in a place like Guam? “Making snow is always a challenge," Jean said, laughing, and Tammy agreed: “Last year we tried using a fog machine to give the illusion of snow," Tammy said, “but what a mess! Now we have two snow machines that shoot out artificial snow, and we always ask the airport authority to pump up the air conditioning on the day of the flight."
Snow or no snow, it's safe to say that the Fantasy Flights are a memory that the children of Guam will carry with them for life. And who's to say that Santa can't trade in his trademark coat and boots for board shorts and flip flops, at least for one day?
15 years later, Houston 737 Captain Vern Robinson still remembers the four-year-old girl in a dress. He was prepping to fly his first Fantasy Flight when the little girl with a smile as wide as a Boeing 747 approached him and said hi. "Seeing this cancer-stricken girl, roughly the same age as my kids who were sitting at home all healthy... that stuck with me and made me feel very fortunate," Vern said. Vern's been flying the San Antonio Fantasy Flight ever since, and he was there last weekend to fly this year's, which was San Antonio's 31st. This one took on a bit of a special meaning for him, as San Antonio partners with the American Cancer Society to fly kids with cancer to the "North Pole," and his wife has recently overcome cancer.
December 1: Phoenix
December 2: Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, San Antonio and San Francisco
December 5: Honolulu
December 7: Guam
December 9: Washington D.C. Dulles, Denver, Cleveland
December 12: London
December 13: NewarkFollow all of the activity on social media using #UAFantasyFlights