Following several years of collaboration among local businesses, parents, advocacy groups, and airline employees, Pittsburgh International Airport opened a 1,500-square-foot “sensory-friendly space” for special-needs passengers on July 24.
Named “Presley’s Place”—after the autistic four-year-old son of airport heavy equipment operator Jason Rudge, who wrote a letter to the airport’s CEO proposing the idea—the facility in Concourse A is designed to serve as a place for special-needs passengers of all ages to prepare to fly. There’s a foyer in muted tan and blue tones, a shared family room, and individual rooms for families to retreat to. All rooms are soundproof.
“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,’” said Rudge in a press release. “Having a sensory room at the airport changes that thinking to ‘Maybe we can take that trip after all.’”
Thanks to American Airlines and Warrendale, Pennsylvania-based Magee Plastics, the sensory suite even has an “airplane experience,” which features the same walls and floors of an actual plane. There are real airplane seats, too, as well as overhead lights and bins for bags. Taken together, all of it adds up to a real-life simulation that can help prepare anxious travelers for flight.
Pittsburgh International Airport serves more than 9 million fliers annually and, with this development, becomes one of the first airports in the country with a sensory-friendly space: Birmingham and Atlanta airports have both added them in the past three years, and abroad, Gatwick International Airport, near London, opened its sensory room in 2018.