People with autism get chance to try air travel without leaving the ground

Mock travel day at Halifax Stanfield International Airport aimed at helping people on the autism spectrum who may feel extremely anxious when it comes to air travel.

Event aims to help people on autism spectrum lower their stress about airplanes for future travel

Derek Greenwood prints a mock boarding pass with help from his dad, Greg. Derek hasn't been on a plane before, but would like to go to Ontario to visit his grandparents. (CBC News)

Derek Greenwood wants to go to Toronto to visit his grandparents, visit the zoo and climb the CN Tower.

But he's never been on a plane before, and that's something he's hoping to change this summer as his family plans a vacation to visit Ontario.

The 20-year-old has autism, and has a long-held fear of flying. He isn't alone — many people on the autism spectrum have heightened senses and can feel extremely anxious when it comes to air travel, says Autism Nova Scotia.   

The group partnered with the Halifax Stanfield International Airport to hold a mock travel day on Sunday, particularly for people like Greenwood. The event gave participants a chance to experience what it's like to travel on a plane — from check-in to security to sitting on the plane — without ever leaving the ground. 

'It was awesome'

More than a dozen families took part in the event, which has been held at other airports across North America but is new to the Halifax airport.

Derek's father, Greg Greenwood, said it's a great opportunity for his son. 

"He's always been fascinated by airplanes, but equally terrified of them," Greg said.  

Derek Greenwood, left, and his father Greg try out sitting on a plane during the Autism Aviators mock travel day at Halifax airport. (CBC News)

After successfully navigating check-in and security screening with his parents, Derek boarded the plane and took his seat. As he left the plane, Derek paused to stop by the cockpit and talk to the pilot, who pointed out the navigational screens and other controls. 

"It was awesome," Derek said afterwards.  

"Are you ready to go on a plane someday?" his dad asked.

"Yes!" Derek replied.

Resources for travellers with autism

Kelly Corbett, the airport's volunteer program coordinator, said Halifax Stanfield is aiming to offer more resources and information to travellers with autism. 

Corbett said Sunday's mock travel day went well and the airport is hoping to make it an annual event. She said information from Autism Nova Scotia was given to airport staff participating today, and she hopes to make training more widespread. 

Assisting travellers with autism may include steps like taking extra time to explain how their luggage is going to be scanned or offering more details on processes like pat-down checks to make the security process less intimidating. 

With files from Stephanie Blanchet