Pittsburgh airport unveils sensory-friendly suite to ease travel experience

Jason Rudge’s family has a hard time traveling. With young son Presley having autism, it’s hard to deal with the crowds and noise levels often found in airports.

“How are you supposed to go on vacation when it's real noisy [at the airport]? It's just a big deal for our family," said Mr. Rudge, a Pittsburgh International Airport employee.

Mr. Rudge came up with an idea on how to fix the problem. After talking to his wife Sharon, he decided to drop off a letter in the mailbox of Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis, asking to create a space that would allow people with sensory issues to de-stress.

“I wrote a letter, and I did my research on seeing who else might have sensory rooms. I added all that information in my heartfelt letter to [Ms. Cassotis] explaining what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it,” Mr. Rudge said.

Two years later, Presley’s Place is born.

Pittsburgh International Airport unveiled a sensory-friendly suite Tuesday that allows travelers of all ages who have autism or other special needs a place to decompress and adjust to flying after getting through airport security.

The 1,500-square-foot suite contains a family room, three individual rooms, a quiet room and an airplane experience room, which contains real airline seats, overhead bins and working lights. The airline experience room offers a chance to get accustomed to flying before actually doing it.

Ms. Cassotis said airport officials spent a lot of time talking with parents of children with special needs, organizations that focus on these issues and studying places with sensory rooms — such as children’s hospitals — to figure out what exactly should be in its suite.

“[Families] can now think about being able to travel because there is an opportunity for their loved one to decompress after security, which can be a pretty overwhelming experience for somebody for a sensory-processing issue,” Ms. Cassotis said. “This opens up the world to families that didn't know that they could fly, and we are really proud to do that here."

Presley’s Place took six months to complete and cost a little more than $500,000. 

Eight foundations funded the entirety of the suite: Hillman Family Foundations, American Airlines, Allegheny County Airport Authority Charitable Foundation, Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, MAX-Ability, FISA Foundation, Magee Plastics and TFH USA. American Airlines and Magee Plastics donated the seats in the airplane experience room.

Mr. Rudge, a heavy equipment operator for the airport, said he came up with the idea when 4-year-old Presley — whom the space is named after — went to a preschool readiness program that included sensory rooms, noting that it was the reason the family was able to make it a full-year through the program.

The Presley’s Place naming process was not so easy. Given that Mr. Rudge named his son after Elvis Presley, the airport had to ask the singer’s family estate for permission to use the name. It was a surprise to Mr. Rudge and his family that their son was the namesake for the space.

“We couldn't decide the name until we knew the estate would give us permission. We had to call the Presley estate,” Ms. Cassotis said. “So that’s why it was such a surprise to Jason when we named the room that. We didn't want to get his hopes up.”

He gives a lot of credit to Ms. Cassotis’ use of that mailbox, which she leaves open to comments, suggestions and issues from employees.

“If it wasn't for that mailbox, there wouldn't be a sensory room,” Mr. Rudge said. “Are you really going to go knock on a CEO’s door to ask for this? No. That was my invitation into her office."

Ms. Cassotis said she is hoping the space — which the airport considers to be the world’s most comprehensive sensory-friendly airport suite — has an industry-wide impact.

“We wanted to make sure we did something that would really truly be inspirational for the industry and for other big public places like this, so that we could see the ripple effect of the impact,” she said.

The sensory suite is located in Concourse A where United and Southwest Airlines flights take off.

SOURCE ARTICLE: https://www.post-gazette.com/business/development/2019/07/24/Pittsburgh-airport-unveils-sensory-friendly-suite-to-ease-travel-experience-for-those-with-special-needs/stories/201907230107

Rachel Mastromarino