|Fantasy Flight to the North Pole – United Airlines and CHI
1990 through 2016
Dept. of Transportation article
In 1989, Children’s Hospice International and United Airlines entered into a partnership to develop “Fantasy Flight to the North Pole” to take children with life-threatening conditions and their families on a magical journey in a special plane to the land of Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, elves, princesses, storybook friends and TV characters, toys, treats, and everything that each child dreams of at Christmas time.
The first Fantasy Flight at the Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., was a tremendous success and eventually was expended to 92 United Airlines stations around the world. After the events of 9/11/2001, many of the programs were discontinued for security reasons but the Dulles based Fantasy Flight has continued, even when the planes were not airborne and the event was held in the lobby of the CHI offices.
Over the years, several thousand children participated in the Fantasy Flight. CHI invites children with life-threatening conditions from children’s hospitals, hospices, Walter Reed Army Hospital, and related institutions in the greater Washington area to attend with their families. The number of passengers varies each year depending on the size of the airplane. In 2012, there were over 240 passengers flying to and landing at the “North Pole.”
The flight itself is a thrill for the children! Upon arrival at Dulles, they receive their airline tickets, go through security and board the special plane. They watch through the windows as the plane is sprayed with a “special substance” which will make it fly at super speed to arrive at the North Pole in just half an hour. During the flight, with window shades lowered to protect the secrecy of the route, they listen to the captain communicating with flight towers along the way and announcing first sightings of Santa and reindeers flying across the northern skies. After landing, they disembark through a gate which leads them to the magic land, aglow with lights and filled with everything that makes Christmas special. The sight of the children’s eyes bright with excitement is the greatest thanks than anyone connected with organizing this wonderful event can receive.
One of our special guests early on in the program was Mattie Stepanek. Mattie decided that he wanted to be an Elf and help Santa distribute gifts rather than receive them himself. He went from being “Elf in Training” to “Head Elf” up until he died. A special Elf Sleigh commemorating Mattie’s participation is on display at the North Pole fantasy land at each Fantasy Flight.
From the outset, CHI worked closely with United Airlines employees to educate them on issues connected with dealing with these special children and, since for many of the children this was the last Christmas they would celebrate, offered bereavement support after the first few of the Fantasy Flights.
We are extremely grateful to Donn Swansey and Frank Gross of United Airlines for their initiative and vision in starting the Fantasy Flight program, to outstanding volunteer chairmen, including John Ravetta and Bill Watts, and to hundreds of employees of United Airlines who selflessly give countless hours of their time to make possible this “flight of a lifetime” for these precious children and their families. We also thank the Department of Transportation and Secretary Ray LaHood for supporting this endeavor.