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-only flights transport critical goods

By The Hub team

When the pandemic began, United Cargo knew it would be critical to utilize its fleet, network and industry-leading pharmaceutical handling processes to transport a COVID-19 vaccine when the time came.

Connecting vaccines to the world: United responds to mass distribution effort

December 22, 2020

On November 27, United Airlines became the first commercial airline to safely deliver the first batch of Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine into the U.S. thanks to a coordinated effort between United's cargo, safety, technical operations, flight operations, regulatory and legal teams.

Now as the entire shipping and logistics industry bands together to widely distribute vaccines, United is leveraging all of its flights, including cargo-only and those carrying passengers, to transport millions of vaccines to destinations throughout our network, including Honolulu, Guam and Saipan – the first of any carrier to do so.

United Raises Miles for Dozens of Non-Profits that Rely on Travel

Airline and its customers use crowdsourcing platform - Miles on a Mission - to donate more than 11 million miles for charities like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, College to Congress and Compass to Care
By United Newsroom, December 01, 2020

CHICAGO, Dec. 1, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- United is inviting MileagePlus members to give back on Giving Tuesday and throughout the holiday season by donating miles to nearly 40 non-profits through United Airlines' crowdsourcing platform, Miles on a Mission. Non-profits like Thurgood Marshall College Fund, College to Congress and Compass to Care are attempting to raise a total of more than 11 million miles to be used for travel for life-saving health care, continued education, humanitarian aid and more. United will match the first 125,000 miles raised for each of these organizations to help ensure they meet their goals.

United Raises Miles for Dozens of Non-Profits that Rely on Travel

Why we fly

By The Hub team, November 27, 2020

In October 2019, we launched a first-of-its-kind airline miles donation platform, Miles on a Mission. In the inaugural year, MileagePlus members donated over 70 million miles, with United matching over 20 million miles, to 51 organizations. These miles have allowed for these organizations to do important, life-changing, life-saving work in the communities we serve around the globe.

Scroll to top