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An ‘Airplane’ Inside the Airport American Airlines’ airplane cabin experience is a key feature of new sensory space

By Natalie Fiorilli

As more and more airports add quiet spaces for individuals with autism and other sensory-processing issues, one feature in particular stands out in Pittsburgh International’s new sensory-friendly space.

Travelers entering the area can turn left and find themselves walking through what appears to be a passenger boarding bridge – and what’s at the end of the jet bridge? An airplane, of course.

While brainstorming ideas for the space, the airport’s sensory room committee thought to include a real-life airplane experience. Knowing the team would need to get an airline on board, committee member Jim Moorhead, assistant superintendent of field maintenance for PIT, knew just who to ask: his next-door neighbor, Bill Schmitt.

In a backyard conversation across the fence with Schmitt, an aircraft maintenance technician (AMT) for American Airlines, Moorhead asked if American would be interested in participating.

“He said, ‘Sign us up, right here, right now. We’ll figure it out tomorrow,’” Moorhead said.

Schmitt soon presented the idea to John Falbo, senior manager of base maintenance at PIT, and once the American Airlines management team gave official approval, he began looking for authentic aircraft seats to include in the space.

“At that time, I don’t think anyone really knew exactly what we were doing yet. But once we got the seats, the project took a little bit of direction,” Schmitt said.
The airplane cabin experience inside PIT's sensory room features authentic aircraft components. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

He then contacted Magee Plastics, a local manufacturing company that frequently works with American and other carriers worldwide as a specialist in refurbishing aircraft interiors. Magee found the parts to replicate an airplane cabin in England and then shipped them to Pittsburgh to be refurbished.

“We do this every day for airlines all around the world,” said Charles Story, vice president of engineering and quality assurance for Magee Plastics. “We were happy to be able to support the program. It’s a great idea for the children and even adults who may have never flown to be able to see it, because it’s a real airplane interior – all the components are real airplane parts.”

When the parts were refurbished and ready to be put together, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh began working with Pittsburgh engineering and fabrication firm XYZ Custom to create the “exhibit” area.

To gain a better understanding of what the space should look like, the team visited the American Airlines maintenance base at Pittsburgh International and met with the AMT crew, who offered advice on installing the parts and seats.

“Our team loves this stuff because everything we do is always different and there are always these kinds of interesting challenges that come up,” said Steve Hellberg, president of XYZ Custom. “In this case, we had pieces from an aircraft coming and had to figure out how to mount those pieces and make it feel like it’s an actual airplane.”

In addition to including real aircraft components, the design team created adhesive prints using photos taken by Schmitt.

The prints, located throughout the exhibit, add details such as the cockpit door, emergency exit and view from the cabin windows -- including a photo of the Pittsburgh skyline.

“I don’t think anyone working on the room expected the airplane part to turn out as nice as it did. I think it caught everyone by surprise, just how realistic it is,” Schmitt said. “The room is absolutely amazing. It’s by far one of the coolest projects I’ve ever worked on.”

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