Air travel horror stories typically involve lost luggage, missed connections and overzealous security. But families affected by autism face other challenges in navigating airports and planes.

An innovative program at Philadelphia International is bringing families, airport employees, and airlines together to help autistic kids fly more comfortably.

Airports are loud, hectic places; blaring announcements, glaring lights and long lines can spell trouble for people with autism, who often can't tolerate noise, bright lights, or close quarters.

Moms gathered at Philadelphia International airport on a recent morning have seen the effects first hand.

Susan Stein recalled her daughter screaming, having trouble breathing and looking very pale during a flight to Arizona.

Cecilia Thompson had to leave the airport when security staff thought her son was belligerent; actually, he was just having a hard time adjusting to everything around him.

Giving it another shot

Thompson and Stein have not tried to fly with their children since their last, terrible experiences. Being grounded has limited their ability to see family members, and to take vacations. But they're are back at the airport to give flying another shot, starting with a practice run going from curb to cabin and back.

Philadelphia developmental pediatrician Wendy Ross developed the program at the Philadelphia airport together with colleagues. They got started after one of her patients had an especially bad experience flying.

"She had expected to pre-board with her whole family, and then the airline's rules were that she could only reboard with one family member," Ross recalled. "And so she got very anxious and aggressive, was biting her parents, and was unable to make that flight home."

Besides making families feel comfortable, Ross and her group want airport and airline staff to become familiar with autism. They start by talking to them. A United Airlines crew complete with pilot has come in for the training from airports all over the country. They listen as Ross explains what autism is, and how it manifests itself.

The families participating in the practice session are waiting at the check-in counter, where they get real boarding passes.

TSA officer Robert Rieser explains the first hurdle, getting through security. He breaks the process down step-by-step, so families and kids know what to expect.

Everybody seems a bit tense as the group proceeds to security, but the kids make it through.

King of Prussia mom Carmella Zelli is preparing her family for a trip to Disneyland in April. Her 11-year-old son Anthony doesn't talk and gets agitated easily. She's worried he won't go down the jet way. She says when Anthony can't see what's in front of him, he gets nervous and doesn't want to go.

Zelli is right. Anthony walks all the way down to the plane, then turns around and runs away. As the rest of the group boards the flight, and gets settled in, he refuses and cries. Zelli and her family eventually leave.

Next stop: Disneyland

United Airlines flight attendant Dana McCue says watching the family struggle was a valuable lesson, teaching her to be patient, and to be aware of the situation.

The pretend flight ends without incident. Families gather their belongings, get off the plane, and each kid receives a pin shaped like a pair of wings. Ross says it's a symbol of their achievement.

"Literally, we are helping kids fly, but as a metaphor, travel is so much more than how we get from one place to another, it is how we experience opportunity."

Several airports and airlines across the country have expressed interest in the program. Ross has already brought this model of practice and awareness to museums, and hopes to expand it to other places like restaurants and stores.

And for the boy who didn't get on the plane, Ross says now she knows exactly what to practice with him, to make sure he gets to Disneyland.