American Airlines conducted a nationwide airlift on Saturday as it flew 12 aircraft from every corner of the country on a special mission, bringing Gold Star Families to Walt Disney World in Orlando. As part of the airline’s yearly Snowball Express flights in partnership with the Gary Sinise Foundation, American transports over 1,000 children and their surviving parent or guardian to a special event. In this, the program’s 13th year, the event was a week-long trip to Disney World.
Consisting of aircraft ranging from the Super 80 to a Boeing 777-200, the Snowball Express fleet departed from their starting airports early Saturday morning, making stops in cities along the way before arriving at Orlando International Airport. In total, the aircraft flew over 17,000 miles to get the families to Orlando with American donating all the aircraft involved.
Such an endeavor required thousands of hours of coordination between American Airlines, the Gary Sinise Foundation, the airports on every route, the Department of Defense, Walt Disney World and various state and local agencies, executing the festivities with military precision.
In New York alone, where AirlineGeeks joined Snowball Express flight 2, representatives from each branch of the U.S. military, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, Patriot Guard and the Port Authority Police Department, among others, were on hand to give the children the sendoff they deserve. Starting with an escort from the Port Authority Police Department and Patriot Guard, the families arrived at JFK Airport’s Terminal 8 to check-in for their flights.
After a breakfast hosted by American, it was time to head to the gate. American Airlines had reserved Gate 12 at JFK Airport for the occasion, dedicated to the military and all who serve our country. In an incredible show of respect for the fallen and their families, a red carpet lined with American flags on one side and honor guards from agencies of the U.S. government lining the other lead to the gate area.
The normally-bustling and busy terminal fell silent as the National Anthem was performed and a wave of patriotism, washed over the ceremony and its attendees, aided by the countless number of American flags surrounding the gate. American had gone all out for the event, decorating the gate area and lining the jetway with balloons for the occasion.
At the appointed hour, none other than Santa Claus himself guided the children to the sleigh that would take them to Disney World.
As our aircraft pulled into the gate, all families were welcome to board, regardless of the boarding zone listed on their boarding pass. The flight we were on had initiated in Detroit before heading to New York and Norfolk to pick up more passengers before the final stop in Orlando. Apparently, Santa needed his reindeer in the North Pole for recurrent training before the Christmas rush so our Boeing 7-sleigh-7 aircraft was driven by two volunteer American Airlines pilots aided by an all-volunteer American Airlines cabin crew, who performed the safety demonstration to the tune of “The Night Before Christmas.”
As we made our way down the coast to our first stop, the flight was more celebratory than solemn as kids were running up and down the aisle, making new friends and even helping the flight attendants with the drink and snack service. And, of course, a snowball fight erupted. Children of all ages were on the flight, ranging from tiny tots to teenagers, all excited for the week ahead in Orlando.
Arriving in Norfolk, a large military town, the response was overwhelming. Members of the military, local volunteers and others lined the entire jetway, giving the families a hero’s welcome to Norfolk, if only for a quick 20-minutes during the layover. Inside the terminal, the airport had arranged for activities such as Build-a-Bear, photo booths, popcorn machines and hot chocolate to entertain the kids during the stop.
Back onboard, those who opted to remain on the plane while on the ground in Norfolk were partaking in the tradition of getting a photo in the overhead bin. After a quick refuel and flight crew swap, we were ready for the final leg of our journey from Norfolk to Orlando. Picking up passengers along the way, the 2-hour leg boasted a completely full flight of excited passengers, ready for the week ahead.
Cruising down the East Coast, the festivities continued, flight attendants served hot chocolate in addition to the standard drinks, children were still having fun and parents were sharing stories. The flights were more than just a vessel to transport the families to Disney, they were mini-communities where these families could interact.
Counselors from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAP) were also onboard to offer support and counseling for those in need both in-flight and throughout the trip. While in Orlando, TAPS will also be offering additional resources to the families including application assistance for scholarships and education on government programs and benefits they’re eligible for. While the trips are undoubtedly fun for the families involved, they also act as support and healing experiences.
As we touched down in Orlando, the plane erupted with applause. The Snowball Express aircraft were brought over to the Signature FBO terminal on the west side of the airport where Disney Magical Express buses were waiting to take the families to their hotels in preparation of a fun-filled week at Disney World.
The next 3-hours would see three more aircraft arrive including an Airbus A319 from Seattle and Salt Lake City, a Boeing 757-200 from Sacramento and Los Angeles and a Boeing 777-200 from Dallas. Operating like clockwork, once a plane arrived on the ramp, its passengers went straight from the aircraft to their busses and bags were loaded onto a truck to be delivered to the hotel. Once everything was off the plane, the crews flew the aircraft home.
The last flight of the night was a fully-loaded Boeing 777-200, which transported families from Dallas with the help of an Envoy Air Embraer E175 bringing families from the Colorado Springs and El Paso area to Dallas for the flight. Once everybody was off the plane, a quick ceremony lead by Randy Stillinger, American’s manager of military and veterans initiatives, was held to welcome the families to Orlando.
All in all, 1,722 children were transported by American Airlines and the Gary Sinise Foundation for what is sure to be a memorable week in Orlando. Snowball Express began in 2006 but this is the first time the program is taking the families to Disney World. Last year, the program took place in Dallas, American Airlines’ headquarters.
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