Pittsburgh International Airport unveiled a new sensory-friendly space Tuesday that will offer special needs travelers from children to adults an opportunity to decompress while traveling and get acclimated to fly inside a real plane cabin.
Named Presley’s Place for the son of airport heavy equipment operator Jason Rudge who came up with the idea, the 1,500 square-foot facility is among the first airport sensory-friendly spaces in the country and is the first with a real plane, jetway and multiple rooms.
“Flying or visiting an airport can be stressful for anyone, but that is particularly true when it comes to individuals with autism or other special needs,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “Kudos to airport employees and the authority for recognizing the need, and to so many partners for stepping up to make this vision a reality. With the opening of this amenity, all travelers will have the opportunity to explore in a safe space.”
Nestled in Concourse A, every aspect of the new 1,500 square foot sensory-friendly suite was designed with special needs passengers in mind. The suite includes a calming transition foyer, a family room, individual rooms with bubble tubes, and an adult area (all fully soundproof). The space also includes an airplane experience and a bathroom available to the public which includes an adult changing table and adjustable sink.
“We want to make flying accessible to everyone. This room is an opportunity for special needs travelers from children to adults to have a place to decompress and get prepared to fly,” Pittsburgh International Airport CEO Christina Cassotis said. “This has been a multi-year process with engagement from more than 40 organizations and lots of parents. I’d also like to give a special thanks to our airport staff who built the room in-house as well as those who managed the project every step of the way.”
The airplane experience entrance hallway has the walls and floor of a real jetway as you enter, just like a real plane. American Airlines and Magee Plastics donated a plane cabin and seating, which includes overhead bins, and working lights above the seats.
While contained as part of the sensory room, the airplane experience also has a separate door that will allow the airport to also use the area during first-time flyers classes to get novice travelers familiar with a plane.
“American Airlines strives to take care of people on life’s journey, while ensuring they feel welcome and relaxed throughout their travel experience” said Craig Barton, Vice President of Technical Services at American Airlines. “Through our partnership with the Allegheny County Airport Authority and Pittsburgh International Airport, our locally based maintenance team has been able to further that commitment by creating a safe, engaging space for those traveling with disabilities.”
The idea for a sensory room came from an airport employee, Jason Rudge, whose 4-year-old son Presley has autism. When Presley was 2, he entered a preschool readiness program with a sensory room and which helped him make it through the entire program.
It occurred to Rudge that having a similar room at the airport would make it easier for families with autistic children to travel.
“A caregiver for a kid with autism might think ‘I’m never going to be able to fly anywhere with my family — it’s too hard to travel with someone with autism,’” Rudge said. “Having a sensory room at the airport changes that thinking to ‘Maybe we can take that trip after all.’”
To develop the project, airport project leaders brought together advocacy groups, individuals and caregivers of children with neurodevelopmental challenges, to share their experiences and offer suggestions for the sensory room.
The participants had a lot of ideas: Make it soundproof, serving both children and adults, with a variety of comfy seating and adjustable features to meet individuals’ various needs. Airport planners incorporated the feedback and ideas into the design.
The community came together to help fund the room including sizable donations from local foundations and specialized sensory equipment/furniture also being donated. Some of the groups who donated to the room include:
- Allegheny County Airport Authority Charitable Foundation
- American Airlines
- Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust
- FISA Foundation
- Hillman Family Foundations
- Magee Plastics
- TFH USA