Opening up the World for Children with Autism - United Hub

Opening up the world for children with autism

By Matt Adams, April 20, 2018

A version of this story appears in the April issue of Hemispheres in honor of National Autism Awareness Month

The raw emotions are still evident, even more than a decade later, when Houston-based Captain Kyle Gardner and his wife Irma talk about their first attempted flight as a family with their son Nicky. They were standing in the gate area at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on their way to Los Angeles, but Nicky was struggling. As other passengers looked on, he threw himself onto the floor and let loose, screaming and flailing his arms and legs as Irma tried to calm him.

"I said to Kyle, 'I can't do this,'" Irma recalls. "There was no way I could put him on that flight. We were so anxious, and people were staring at us. They couldn't see that he has a disability, they just thought he was being a brat. I was so upset that I picked him up and we left."

Nicky, who is now 15, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder shortly after his third birthday. As a young boy, he had a hard time adjusting to new environments, especially those, like airports, filled with noise and movement, and his discomfort could quickly escalate, leaving Kyle and Irma feeling powerless.

Houston-based Captain Kyle Gardner and his sons at Houston\u2019s October Wings for All eventKyle and his sons at Houston's October Wings for All event

While traumatic, the Gardners' experience is hardly unique among families with autistic children. That's why in recent years, airlines like ours and 45 airport authorities across the U.S. have teamed up with the Arc, a nationwide organization serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to host Wings for Autism and Wings for All (the name varies by city) airport immersion sessions designed to give children with autism a greater level of familiarity and comfort when traveling.

When he first heard about the program at Houston's George Bush International Airport in 2014, Kyle jumped at the chance to volunteer. Twice a year, he puts on his uniform and helps lead a Wings for All group on a dry run through the airport, from the ticketing area, through security, to the boarding gate and onto on of our parked aircraft. Once on board, Kyle, his fellow pilots and a team of flight attendants put on a mock flight.

Kyle recognizes in the kids the same anxiety and fear that he once observed in Nicky. But, given his unique personal connection, he's able to reassure them and their parents that, with enough practice and a patient approach, anything is possible.

"There's one child who has come multiple times," he says, "but he was never able to get down the jetbridge. Last time, he made it all the way onto the plane, and that was a big accomplishment. These families keep coming back, and each time their kids make small improvements."

Nicky, Irma, Kyle and the Gardners\u2019 youngest son, Sebastian, at Machu Picchu, PeruNicky, Irma, Kyle and the Gardners' youngest son, Sebastian, at Machu Picchu, Peru

The Gardners didn't have a support system like Wings for Autism/Wings for All when Nicky was young, and they admit it was difficult. Eventually, through perseverance, they helped him become the seasoned flyer he is today, with a passport book that's filling up with stamps. At the Houston Wings for All event last October, Nicky accompanied his mom and dad and shared his experiences with the attendees, serving as inspiration for those who worry that air travel is beyond their grasp.

"We didn't want Nicky to only see the world through books," Irma says, "we wanted him to see it for himself. He loves flying now, and I feel like we don't have any limitations."

What keeps Kyle going back to Wings for All year after year is the hope that other families can reach that point, too. "Getting their child onto an airplane for the first time means that maybe one day they can visit Grandma or go to Disneyland together. You can't measure the impact," he says. "They are so grateful for that opportunity, and that's what stays with me. At United, caring is second only to safety, and our participation in Wings for Autism and Wings for All underscores that."

Houston's next Wings for All event is scheduled for April 24. For details, visit the Arc of Texas webpage.

United Cargo operates more than 11,000 cargo-only flights in one year

By The Hub team, March 19, 2021

On March 19, 2020, United operated its first flight carrying cargo without passengers on board. While the passenger cabin was empty, its cargo hold was completely full, carrying more than 29,000 pounds of commodities from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA).

A year later, United Cargo has operated more than 11,000 cargo-only flights carrying more than 570 million pounds of freight. To support the COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts, United Cargo has also transported more than 113 million pounds of medical and pharmaceutical products on both cargo-only and passenger flights as well as approximately 10 million COVID-19 vaccines, providing global communities access to the items they have needed most.

10 tips for spring travel

By The Hub team, February 24, 2021

Whether you haven't flown with us for a while or just need a quick refresher before your spring trip, read this list of tips to know before your flight and arrive at the airport travel-ready:

1. Download the United app for contactless bag check, travel assistance and more

Before your flight, download the United app to view your flight status, check in, sign up for flight notifications, locate departure gates, access our free personal device entertainment when available and more. We've also updated our app with new features that can make your trip a little safer, including contactless bag check.

Don't forget to use Agent on Demand for help with any and all questions you may have before your flight. This new capability is available at all our U.S. hub airports and allows you to use your own mobile device to contact a customer service agent via phone, video or chat to help with day-of-travel questions while you're at the airport. Learn more about Agent on Demand here.

United joins UNICEF COVAX initiative

By The Hub team, February 19, 2021

This week, we were honored to become the first U.S. airline to join the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting the vaccine and other critically needed supplies to underserved areas of the globe.

"We are committed to helping the global community in any way we can, and we all must work together to do our part to bring this health and humanitarian crisis to an end," said Director of Cargo Specialty Products Manu Jacobs.

We will leverage our expertise to transport these critical pharmaceutical and healthcare shipments around the world safely, efficiently and expediently. We are proud to partner with the United Nations to support this global effort and provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

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