Which Airline Is Best at Accommodating Passengers With Autism?


How are airlines accommodating customers with an autism spectrum disorder? We decided to find out.

The Mighty researched six major airlines’ online policies and contacted customer service representatives with further questions via phone and/or email. We asked about previous accommodations they’d made, whether or not they allow passengers with autism to board the plane early, what types of inflight support they offer and how far in advance families should tell the airline about any specific needs.

Based on our research, JetBlue appears to be the most accommodating. Check out the details on all six airlines below. We also know the provided information doesn’t always tell the whole story. If you’ve flown any of these airlines with a loved one with autism, please tell us about your experience in the comment section below.

United Airlines

Is pre-boarding available for passengers with autism and their families?

Yes.

Is there information about traveling with a person with autism available online?

No. The airline offers generalized information about traveling with a physical disability, but there is nothing specifically mentioning autism. The Mighty called a United Airlines customer service representative, who was kind and helpful. The airline has not yet responded to our email inquiry.

Are there any inflight accommodations?

The airline will always make sure people with autism are able to sit with their families, according to the United Airlines customer service agent. If the person needs to change seats mid-flight, the flight attendants will do their best to accommodate the request. If other passengers have boarded the plane, however, they cannot guarantee they will be able to switch seating.

How soon should you let the airline know your circumstances? 

The agent recommended families traveling with a person with autism let the airline know of any special circumstances when making the flight reservation. It’s also a good idea to let the gate personnel know of any special needs and requests upon arriving at the airport.

Any additional information?

The airline will do its best to accommodate any special requests as long as they are made in advance — it offers assistance on an individual basis. In the past, United has allowed children with autism and their parents to board a parked, empty plane so they can get used to it well before takeoff time.

If a meal is requested mid-flight for a person with autism, the airline will do its best to accommodate them if the flight has a meal service, another customer service representative told The Mighty. However, most domestic flights no longer serve meals, and if there’s no food service onboard, they cannot provide a meal.

JetBlue

Is pre-boarding available for passengers with autism and their families?

Yes. The airline also offers silent boarding before pre-boarding to give the person plenty of time to feel settled before the rest of the passengers board, a customer service representative told The Mighty.

Is there information about traveling with a person with autism available online?

Yes. JetBlue explains the services it offers customers with cognitive disabilities, and it includes a section about passengers with autism. The airline also responded quickly to our phone and email inquiries. JetBlue customer service agents are available by phone anytime.

Are there any inflight accommodations?

JetBlue offers seats with extra space set aside in advance for people with disabilities at no extra charge, a customer service representative told The Mighty over the phone. A person with autism can sit in one of these seats with a companion traveler.

How soon should you let the airline know your circumstances? 

JetBlue offers assistance on an individual basis, so be sure to call with any specific questions at least one full day before your flight. They also recommend letting the gate personnel and flight crew know about any special needs upon arrival to the airport.

Any additional information?

If you and your loved one with autism would like to practice boarding the plane before the actual boarding starts, ask a customer service representative more than a few days before the flight. JetBlue has allowed children with autism and their families to explore a parked, empty plane prior to takeoff.

Virgin America

Is pre-boarding available for passengers with autism and their families?

Yes.

Is there information about traveling with a person with autism available online?

No. The Virgin America website says it makes accommodations for passengers with disabilities, but there is no further information available. We were unable to contact the airline’s disability customer service representatives by phone, but they responded quickly over email.

Are there any inflight accommodations?

The airline will do whatever it can to ensure people with autism and their loved ones have their choice of seating, a customer service representative told The Mighty via email. Children with autism and their parents will always sit together. If your family needs to change seats midway through the flight, the flight crew will do their best to reseat you (although there are no guarantees). Virgin America makes its accommodations on a case-by-case basis, so if you let them know what you need well in advance, they will do whatever they can to make the flight more comfortable.

How soon should you let the airline know your circumstances? 

It’s best to indicate that your family will need specific services as soon as you make the reservation, but it also helps to call and talk with a flight agent a few days in advance as well.

Any additional information?

The airline may be able to offer people with autism and their families to tour the plane before boarding. Be sure to let the airline personnel know well in advance, and let a flight agent know your circumstances when you arrive at the airport on flight day.

Southwest Airlines

Is pre-boarding available for passengers with autism and their families?

Yes.

Is there information about traveling with a person with autism available online?

No. Southwest indicates the services it does and does not provide passengers with cognitive and developmental disabilities, but it doesn’t mention autism specifically. We called the airline’s customer service number to inquire further, and the representative we spoke with was knowledgable and helpful. Southwest customer service is available by phone 24 hours a day.

Are there any inflight accommodations?

If you’re sitting on the plane and your loved one suddenly needs to switch seats for whatever reason, let a flight attendant know, and they will make an announcement over the plane’s PA system asking if other passengers can accommodate the request. The customer service representative told us flight attendants will always be willing to work with customers on whatever they need if something else comes up.

How soon should you let the airline know your circumstances? 

Families should arrive at the gate 45 minutes before takeoff time (10 minutes earlier than other passengers) in time to pre board. There is no need to call ahead to make special arrangements.

Any additional information?

Make your flight reservation as you normally would. The airline’s representative told us autism isn’t one of the disabilities you can indicate when you make your reservation online, but you can pre board at any airport — no need to bring a doctor’s letter or any other form of proof.

Delta

Is pre-boarding available for passengers with autism and their families?

Yes.

Is there information about traveling with a person with autism available online?

No. Delta’s website offers general information about what the airline offers travelers with disabilities, but it does not mention autism. The website lists a specific number for disability assistance, and a customer service representative was immediately available and helpful when we reached out.

Are there any inflight accommodations?

Delta assigns seating in advance, but the airline’s customer service representative told us you’re always able to ask a flight attendant if you can move seats mid-flight. They cannot guarantee anything, but they will do their best to reseat you.

How soon should you let the airline know your circumstances? 

The Delta customer service representative told us it’s best to call Delta and let them know about any special needs when you first make your flight reservation. Airline personnel will let the gate personnel know in advance that a person with autism will be onboard the flight. Let the flight crew know about any special needs when you board the plane.

The Delta representative also recommended that families traveling with a loved one with autism allow one additional hour at the airport before departure time to ensure all potential needs are met.

Any additional information?

Delta is working on a system where the gate personnel let the flight crew know about passengers with autism well before flight time, but this has not been fully implemented yet.

American Airlines

Is pre-boarding available for passengers with autism and their families?

Yes.

Is there information about traveling with a person with autism available online?

No. The American Airlines website gives instructions on how to contact customer service representatives about traveling with a disability. We contacted the airline’s customer service number and spoke with a representative.

Are there any in-flight accommodations?

American Airlines told us it reserves priority seating for passengers with disabilities and their families in advance. If you would like to take advantage of priority seating, let the airline personnel know when you make the reservation.

How soon should you let the airline know your circumstances? 

The American Airlines customer service representative recommended that families traveling with a loved one with autism who need specific services let the airline know at the time the reservation is made. The airline will do its best to make last-minute accommodations, but the more notice you give, the more likely they will be able to help. They recommend additionally letting a flight agent know about any special needs when you arrive at the airport.

Any additional information?

The American Airlines website offers a “Disability Assistance Request” where you can specify that you are traveling with a person with autism and explain what types of services you will need on flight day. You can file this request during or after you make your flight reservation.

If you or a loved one has autism, we want to know the following: Have you had a good or bad experience with any of these airlines? Let us know in the comment section below.

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