Twin Cities airport installs mock aircraft cabin to help travelers gain confidence

A former Delta Airlines cabin simulator
This former Delta Airlines cabin simulator, lined with rows of Boeing 737 seats, is now installed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, for use in the airport's "Navigating MSP" program. The program helps people prepare for air travel.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Airports Commission

A newly arrived airliner at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport doesn't have wings, or wheels, or engines. It'll never leave the gate. But it will help more people gain the skills and confidence needed to make their travel goals a reality.

The former Delta Air Lines cabin simulator, lined with rows of Boeing 737 seats, is now located in Concourse C at MSP, in what may be a first-of-its-kind airport installation.

The simulator allows for "getting people with disabilities out to the airport, and giving them the experience without all the stress," said Eric Lipp, executive director at the Open Doors Organization, which advises airports around the world on accessibility issues.

"So it's not actually a day to fly, it’s just a practice day (for) people with mobility disabilities, kids or adults who have autism or have intellectual developmental disabilities — bringing those people out to the airport and really getting the experience so that everybody's comfortable flying."

It's the latest addition to the Metropolitan Airports Commission's longstanding Navigating MSP program, which allows travelers to essentially do a test flight in the airport.

A former Delta Airlines cabin simulator
This former Delta Airlines cabin simulator, lined with rows of Boeing 737 seats, is now installed at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, for use in the airport's "Navigating MSP" program. The program helps people prepare for air travel.
Courtesy of Metropolitan Airports Commission

"The whole goal is giving people — as well as people with service dogs — that preflight experience that helps them overcome some of those challenges without being on a real, live flight," said airport spokesperson Jeff Lea.

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Lipp, with the Open Doors Organization, said he didn't know if he'd ever travel again, after a tumor severed his spine and he left a hospital in a wheelchair.

"I didn't really want to fly, and once I tried it, I realized it could be done,” he said.

Lipp's group also pushes for airport accommodations like pass-through elevators that don't require passengers to turn around, and wheelchair-friendly furniture.

And now, the full-scale jet cabin at MSP.

"This is the first of hopefully many," he said.

The simulator has a big swinging aircraft door, the familiar curved walls, rounded windows and a single aisle with seven rows of airliner seats.

That Navigating MSP program includes using ground transportation, getting through security, getting in and out of plane seats — everything but getting off the ground, in preparation for an actual trip.

Lea said the mock cabin can also be used by police and fire personnel, to train for security or medical emergencies on planes, as well as for other people who interact with travelers.

Four artists from Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis — Ethan Nevalainen, Athena Ali, Greta Kotz and Taylan De Johnette — created artwork that covers the outside of the cabin.

Airport officials said the art — titled “Equanimity” — is aimed at creating "a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere for users of the space."

The simulator has been installed in an enclosed area between two gates. The Airport Foundation MSP helped pay for the installation and to move the simulator from Delta's headquarters in Atlanta, where the airline used it for company training.

It's now public — but also not out in the open, where passersby or gawkers might add to the stress.

And it's not a walk-up experience. The Navigating MSP program offers scheduled monthly group events at the airport, with pre-registration required.

The events are free, but because everyone has to pass through regular TSA security checkpoints, participants will have to check in at an airport kiosk and provide a full name and date of birth for all attendees. Anyone 18 or older will have to present a valid picture ID.