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Emirates engages families with neurodivergent children to improve travel experience

Dubai, UAE, 17 Oct 2023: Working with local schools, autism groups and key stakeholders, Emirates and Dubai International Airport (DXB) are focused on improving the travel experience for neurodivergent passengers, facilitating ‘travel rehearsals’ where children can practice their journey through the airport and onboard aircraft, as well as working directly with families to delight superfans like Humza, age 11, on his first flight with Emirates.

Humza Dabab recently flew from Melbourne to Dubai with his mother and two siblings and was treated to a VIP experience from Emirates – his favourite airline. This was his first flight with Emirates, though his parents advised he is already very familiar with all facets of Emirates through his own studies – from the aircraft itself, to the inflight entertainment ice, the cabin crew uniform and the safety video. Humza bought his own safety belt to simulate and act out the safety advisory, to which he has memorised all the words, and has a collection of Emirates aircraft models to practice the take-off and landing experience. Humza’s mother Lamees said ‘The plane is Humza’s happy place. The destination is not even the most exciting part of the journey, I can wholeheartedly say it is the plane ride itself. He is so excited to be finally travelling with Emirates.’

Humza is autistic and being on time is a crucial requirement for his particular needs. The potential of running late or missing the flight would cause significant anxiety which must be alleviated in advance. Emirates and Dubai International Airport employees are trained and prepared for these requests and can facilitate priority boarding for neurodivergent passengers, referred to as People of Determination in the UAE, as well as offering a support system in the airport for customers who declare their additional needs.

Emirates has also been working closely with Dubai Airports to facilitate travel rehearsals for neurodiverse children, including students from the Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Special Education. These rehearsals form part of the accessible and inclusive travel programme developed by Dubai Airports and Emirates, designed to help customers familiarise themselves with the airport environment, its people and processes, prior to travel. The students are accompanied by family members and therapists through the airport and aircraft to simulate an authentic travel experience, including the physical artefacts and processes that passengers will go through on the day of travel, like boarding passes and security screening. The practice process helps the families gain confidence in managing the experience, whilst also enabling Emirates and Dubai Airports to constantly improve services for passengers with additional needs.

Emirates supports neurodivergent passengers and People of Determination in many ways:

Emirates Employee Training

More than 29,000 cabin crew and ground staff globally have completed Emirates ‘Introduction to Autism and Hidden Disabilities’ training. The online course was first launched in 2022 and covers a range of topics from the UAE National Policy for People of Determination, recognising autism, practical tips on how to assist passengers with hidden disabilities, responding with empathy, and information on the official support systems to help passengers in the airport.

Before Travel

Information in advance

Emirates supports passengers with hidden disabilities by providing as much information in advance as possible, so that families can plan, rehearse, and be reassured about their upcoming travel. Passengers can check the Accessible Travel page on Emirates.com for information and contact their Emirates local office with queries.

Free Seat Selection and Bulkhead Seat for autistic passengers and companions

Passengers who declare a hidden disability will be facilitated as much as possible in the complimentary selection of suitable seats, for example the bulkhead seats at the front and middle of the aircraft for both the autistic passenger and their companion. This can be requested via Emirates local office.

Book with ‘DPNA code’ for extra support

A DPNA is an airline industry code for special service request (SSR) for a ‘passenger with intellectual or developmental disability’. The DPNA code can be applied to a booking made in person, via telephone or travel agent and is applied once the hidden disability is declared, so that the passenger will be supported throughout their journey with assistance from trained staff.

Study the ‘Autism Friendly Guide’ to Dubai International Airport

Emirates has collaborated with Dubai International Airport on a comprehensive pre-travel planning tool for passengers with hidden disabilities. The Autism Friendly Guide to Dubai International Airport provides a step-by-step explanation and images of every part of the journey through the airport to boarding, and details what services are available.

Pre-order meals

Some passengers may need a special meal onboard if they have a sensory sensitivity. This can be ordered a minimum of 24 hours in advance on www.Emirates.com or on the Emirates app. There are options to order gluten free meals, bland meals, vegetarian and diabetic meals available. For Kids Meals, families who are travelling with an autistic passenger may contact the Emirates local office with their request in advance.

Pre plan what to watch on ice via Emirates app

Download the Emirates app, and before a flight passengers can spend time planning and pre-selecting their favourite movies, TV shows or music playlists. Once the passenger has boarded, their personally curated playlist can be synced immediately to ice, saving time and enabling them to settle into the flight quicker with the comfort of their familiar content.

Arrival to airport

Complimentary parking for 2 hours

People of Determination receive complimentary parking in all terminals in Dubai International Airport for 2 hours. People of Determination taxis can also be booked via Dubai Taxi on their toll-free number 80088088.

Collect the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard

The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a globally recognised symbol for hidden disabilities. Emirates and Dubai International Airport staff with Sunflower pins are easily identifiable and specially trained to assist travellers with hidden disabilities. Passengers are encouraged to declare their hidden disability to these staff and collect a Sunflower Lanyard to wear, allowing for support throughout the airport journey. The sunflower lanyard can be collected from the information desk in Departures, Terminal 3 and from dedicated, easily identifiable collection points in Terminals 1 and 2.

Autism Friendly Route

The Autism Friendly Route through Dubai International Airport ensures that People of Determination journey through the airport with a dedicated route. It includes access to priority lanes for check-in, passport control, security and boarding; and can be availed when wearing the sunflower lanyard. Specially trained staff equipped to support People of Determination will be easily identifiable wearing sunflower pins, allowing for increased visibility, communication and support throughout the airport journey.

Priority boarding or board last if preferred

People who have declared their hidden disabilities to Emirates staff will be facilitated in boarding the aircraft first if they choose, or last if this more convenient.

Emirates Inflight Experience

Families with children are seated together

Emirates makes every effort to seat families with children together, and passengers who have declared their hidden disability will be seated beside their companion or guardian.

Noise cancelling earphones

Passengers with an aural sensory need in First and Business Class will have access to noise‑cancelling headphones to block out ambient cabin sounds.

Light Sensitivity

If the customer, child or family member informs Emirates cabin crew about a light sensitivity, cabin crew can turn off the passenger’s individual light, close the window blind after take-off, and explain that the cabin lights will be dimmed as soon as the meal services are completed. 

Get busy with puzzles in Fly with Me magazine

Young children onboard who need a screen break or distraction can request a copy of the Emirates ‘Fly with Me’ activity pack, with its own pack of non-toxic colouring pencils, featuring kid-friendly world maps, puzzles, drawing tutorials, colouring pages, educational activities about Dubai and protecting the environment.

Choose preferred entertainment on ice

Passengers enjoying an Emirates flight can pass the time in a world class entertainment library with more than 6,500 channels of on demand entertainment, up to 2000 movies and 1,500 hours of TV, as well as music, podcasts and audiobooks across 40 languages. Ice also has up to 100 video games, which can be played by two players in different seats if the game is a multiplayer game.

To improve the travel experience for neurodiverse passengers or People of Determination, Emirates collaborates with multiple stakeholders including Dubai Airports, General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs, Dubai Customs, Dubai Police, Dubai Autism Centre and Dubai Economy and Tourism.