Autism And The Anxiety of Airline Travel
by Gary Mayerson
Of all the many anxieties parents of children with autism may experience, few would trump the fear associated with airline travel. There are so many junctures and transitions that demand prompt compliance, obedience and conformity-all of them perfect opportunities for something to go terribly wrong.
The first phase, of course, is getting through the security screening. Waiting and more waiting in a serpentine line with throngs of other people to bump into, taking off clothing as instructed, putting all of one's possessions through the scanner and then getting everything back and reorganizing is the price we all must pay just to get to the gate. We then still must wait in another line for boarding, stow our bags in the overhead compartments and take our seats. And that is assuming there are no additional delays, plane equipment problems to be fixed, gate changes or outright cancellations.
The rumble, roar and vestibular imbalance felt during the take off and ascent can sometimes be overwhelming, particularly for childrenwho may experience sensory challenges or who have never flown before. Once aloft, we pray that our child will not need to visit the bathroom while the cart is blocking the aisle, that the cart will not run out of the snacks our child will eat and that our child will not need something that we forgot to bring. Perhaps above all, we pray that we can get from point A to point B without a meltdown or other behaviors that will draw the attention and ire of our fellow passengers or, even worse, the flight crew.
Last month, the national media reported that a family traveling with their teenage daughter with autism was removed from a United Airlines flight Click here for story. The parents contend that the airline discriminated against their daughter by refusing their request for reasonable accommodations. The airline, for its part, is defending its pilot's removal decision as a precautionary "safety" measure that the pilot had the discretion to make. Under such circumstances, assuming that the pilot overreacted, is there legal recourse against the airline?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides anti-discrimination protection by requiring public venues (think schools, buses, trains, restaurants, football stadiums, etc.) to offer "reasonable accommodations" to people with disabilities. The ADA's protection extends to airline terminals, but "aircraft" are specifically excluded, leaving the issue of passenger removal largely to the exercise of pilot discretion. In other words, the same U.S. Congress that enacted the ADA to protect individual rights decided that, on balance, the "public" safety of a plane, its passengers and crew is paramount to the needs of the individual. Accordingly, once you step on the plane, the rules change big time.
Each airline's "Contract of Carriage" gives its flight crew sweeping, if not virtually limitless discretion to determine what kinds of behaviors will mark a passenger for removal. The International Air Transport Association defines "unruly" passengers as those who fail to follow crew instructions and onboard rules of conduct. Examples in the IATA's guide of "unruly" conduct focus on compliance with safety procedures and crew instructions, but also include passengers who appear to be "agitated" or "numb" or who are "communicating displeasure through voice tone..." This, of course, presents a highly subjective standard that can easily be unfairly misapplied to the autism population and those with related disorders.
On this point, statistically, there actually is some good news. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that, annually, more than 848 million passengers travel on U.S. airlines and on foreign airlines serving the United States. Of this number, the F.A.A.'s database reflects that, surprisingly, fewer than 200 "unruly passengers" are actually being removed from flights annually. This number includes intoxicated passengers, argumentative passengers, "singing" passengers and passengers who refused a flight attendant's direction to turn off their cell phone. While, statistically, the chances that your family would actually be removed from a flight are relatively slim, this offers little solace for those families who live in fear of having to manage a challenging situation on the plane.
Given the magnitude of people with disabilities traveling on planes, Congress should reexamine the ADA to determine whether it is time to include aircraft as a protected public accommodation. The issue is a dicey one-- balancing the special needs of a disabled individual against the legitimate need to protect the plane and its other passengers (and crew) from genuine threats. Living with autism, one understands and can easily get used to what autism may look and sound like. However, we also are living in the post-9/11 world and must recognize that the benign behaviors and sensory displays that a parent may no longer even notice may be perceived as threatening to those unfamiliar with autism.
At the very least, each airline's Contract of Carriage (and the IATA's guide) should be amended so as to recognize that the behaviors and sensory displays associated with autism can be non-conforming while not being "unruly" in the sense of a danger to public safety. There obviously is a big difference between "making noise" and "making threats" and the airlines need to provide sophisticated staff training on these kinds of important distinctions.
While a legislative fix does not appear likely in the near future, parents travelling with an affected family member can likely improve the experience of air travel by being proactive, as follows:
- The Department of Homeland Security sponsors a "Trusted Traveler Program" that includes "TSA Pre-Check" status (see www.DHS.gov). Once approved for the program, your family will be entitled to faster transit and security screening with no removal of belts, shoes or light outerwear.
- Introduce your child to all the airline personnel you come into contact with-making the personal connection often paves the way for a smoother flight experience.
- Take advantage of the opportunity for "pre-boarding." When you arrive at the gate, alert the airline personnel that you are traveling with a person with special needs and that you will need to pre-board.
- Most airlines' "Contract of Carriage" will provide that passengers with disabilities requiring wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, or other special equipment will need to contact the airline with that information at least a day or two before the scheduled departure. If you anticipate needing any special accommodations in flight (e.g. warming food in the microwave, etc.), you should call the airline's help-line and communicate your request(s). Once boarded, you should also alert a crew member as to your request.
- Pack special food and preferred items. Airline snacks are at best mediocre and are often distributed late into the flight.
- Take advantage of restroom opportunities at the gate. It may be some time before you will have access to the facilities on the plane.
- Do not say anything to a crew member that can be misunderstood as threatening.
Always make requests in positive terms (e.g. "My special needs child needs ______to be comfortable during the flight" as opposed to "If my child does not get ___soon, all hell is going to break loose!").
- Above all, it is essential to remain calm.
Airline travel today involves anxiety for all concerned, even for the passenger who is flying alone in first class. As always, whether in the air or on the ground, awareness and advocacy is the first step to improving the travel experiences of people with autism and other disabilities.
What's your view? We invite you to send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.