Dear Delta Airlines,
Over the July 4th holiday, my son and I completed what to me seemed like an almost impossible task–flying from our home in Austin, Texas, to a beloved camp counselor’s wedding in British Columbia, Canada. The reason I say, “almost impossible” is because my son, Jackson, has autism. He doesn’t like long car rides, so we usually travel by air, which really isn’t much easier with the noise, the crowds, the wait and the uncertainty. Traveling with autism can make any trip farther than a few hours from our home feel like a high stakes experience.
And yet, my son was determined to attempt this journey out of his love for his former therapist and inclusion camp counselor, “Miss Ilene.” He would not be deterred even though I told him that we might get delayed, or our plane diverted, or miss a connection, or any number of things I could think of that would and could go wrong when traveling.
The reason for my nervousness was despite almost a decade of behavioral therapy for Jackson, travel still creates so many unknowns that there is really no way to plan effectively for all of the things that might go wrong during an international trip. Customs! Immigration! Long lines! Frankly, I was terrified but determined to stay calm for Jackson.
And to add to this travel challenge, the wedding took place over two major holidays–the 150th anniversary of Canada Day on July 1 and the July 4th holiday–two of the most traveled days of the year in North America. Also, I had never flown alone with my son. I’d always brought a relative along to help me in the past. For this trip all the way to Canada, it was just too expensive to bring an extra person. I was going to have to manage this solo. And then, Delta stepped in and was that extra helper that I could depend on in my time of need.
Even with all of the preparation that we do with my son–the Social Stories ©, the behavioral training, the reading and discussing of the social story, the listing of fears, the coping strategies for problems, the research into best practices for traveling with a disability–honestly, it ALL comes down to the employees’ attitudes at the airport and particularly on board the airline. Thus, the airline experience can absolutely make or break the ability for our family to travel anywhere. And I’m telling you, Delta saved the day on this trip. Listen to what happened!
On June 30, Jackson and I left our home around 4 a.m. to catch our 7 a.m. flight to Seattle. Everyone in the Austin airport was helpful and allowed us to board early. (If you are traveling Delta with a disability, call their disability number at 404-209-3434 for assistance 2 days before flying). We had an uneventful flight into Seattle. With the window seat, Jackson was in heaven. He loved traveling on a plane with an entertainment system in the seat back. The flight crew was understanding when he got up to use the bathroom multiple times, as I had talked to them as we were boarding because I knew he would do this. (I wish our seatmate was as understanding, but you can’t win them all). We landed in Seattle and found our next Delta terminal for our quick flight to Vancouver with ease. So far, so good. Almost there I thought.
We were still excited about our trip even with a 3 hour layover, that stretched to 4 hours in the Seattle airport. Our terminal in Seattle was packed. Absolutely packed, so we went and sat in an open seat designated for disabled passengers away from our departure gate. My son pulled out his trusty sketchpad and began to draw as a way to pass the time and lower his stress. He is a great artist, and if you look on his shop page and his art page on this website, you will see some of the great art that he has produced over the years.
After a few hours, our gate opens up for new passengers, and we move from the disability section over to our actual departure gate. We are really excited now. We’re almost to Canada! And then, the worst thing in our world happens. Jackson notices his sketchpad is missing RIGHT AS THEY ARE BOARDING OUR PLANE!! This is horrible for a boy with autism that LIVES FOR ART. It’s the only sketchpad I allowed him to bring because of how heavy they are to carry. So, it’s gone. I was frantic. In the past, Jackson losing his sketchpad would have meant we would have to turn around and go home to get another one. I’m not joking. His autism creates a rigidity in his thinking and if he decided the vacation was ruined because his sketchpad was stolen, then it was over.
So, I was near weeping when I approached two Delta pilots waiting to board the plane—“Do you know where lost and found is?” They don’t, but the gate agent finds out. I’m running frantically all over the terminal. I run back over to the disabilities seating, and ask around, the gate agents are helpful, but we cannot locate the notebook and one of the gate agents calls a Delta red coat supervisor to help us look. The supervisor (a nice lady and I didn’t get her name!) was so so helpful. It was Terminal C, please give her a big raise for what she does next to save our trip. In the meantime, I leave Jackson at the gate, not willing to board, and I run over to the lost and found–Nothing! It’s not there!
And then, I’m almost crying. Tears are just starting to come down my face when the Delta supervisor asks me if a new sketchpad will solve the problem. Yes! and she runs off. The flight is seriously almost done boarding. I have no choice, I have to try to talk Jackson into boarding. Jackson is tentative about boarding, “Do they have sketchpads in Canada?” he asks? “Yes, yes, we will buy you a new sketchpad in Canada.” I say. He seems open to the idea. We are starting to make progress, and then, I see one of the pilots again and he senses my distress (I’m sure it was pretty obvious!) and asks is Jackson wants some “wings” to be an honorary co-pilot of the flight, and Jackson mumbles, “I’m too young.” Very literal in his interpretation.
And then I ask the pilot, whom I’ve now formally met because I’m practically crying in front of him, to make it a bit more official. Jackson likes theatrical flourishes, so can the pilot give a little speech right there in front of the boarding passengers? And Pilot Kevin does! He announces, “Jackson, I would like to make you an honorary co-pilot of this Flight to Vancouver in honor of your bravery in the face of losing your sketchpad.” And Jackson stands up to formally receive his wings, gives a big smile and boards the plane. Phew.
After we board, Kevin sits right down next to us on the plane (he’s obviously not the pilot of this particular flight) and talks to Jackson about his art. Then, just as the plane is about to pull away from the gate, my hero, the Delta Red Coat Supervisor, dashes onto the flight with a gift for Jackson, and inside are 2 sketchpads, 2 pens and a note on the Hudson News store receipt, “Jackson, thank you for your gift of art, Your friends at Delta.”
Delta, you truly saved the day. We landed happily in Vancouver, say our goodbyes to Pilot Kevin and make it through customs (Canada is so organized) and find our way to the rental car agency. As we drive up to Squamish for the wedding, Jackson acts like nothing happened, just another day in the life of a world traveler. I’m still amazed we made it. I’m telling you, Delta Airlines, there would have been no way we could have made this important family event without your help. Every single gate agent in Seattle, the Red Coat supervisor in the terminal and especially Pilot Kevin made this a trip to remember for all the right reasons!
With a million thanks, Jackson’s mom