ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — In some ways it was like any other flight. Forty children and their families waited anxiously to get on the plane at Newark Airport. Boarding passes were checked, and the kids, some anticipating their first in-flight experience, urgently filed down the jetway, through the door and into their seats.
But unlike the destinations of Orlando, Chicago or Los Angeles, this plane was headed to the North Pole.
The fantasy flight on Wednesday, Dec. 13, was for children who are patients at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth, Newark Beth Israel and University Medical Center in Newark.
Passengers received all the customary safety instructions and during the one-hour plane ride, Christmas songs echoed through the decorated aisles of the aircraft as children and flight attendants dressed in holiday-themed costumes sang over the intercom.
Upon landing back at Newark Airport, the plane was directed to a gate that had been transformed with fake snow, a live orchestra from student performers at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Disney characters like Winnie the Pooh and, of course, Santa Claus.
They greeted the children as they individually came off the plane into a winter wonderland, with games, crafts, food and gifts from Santa.
For decades, United Airlines has partnered with local children’s hospitals and charities to bring smiles to underprivileged children and those afflicted with illness.
“This event greatly impacts lives,” event organizer Mary Burns of United told LocalSource. “Three years ago, a father, Terrence Burr, brought his 7-year-old daughter, who at the time was diagnosed with leukemia, she said. “Today, Burr is here as a volunteer and his daughter is now in remission.”
In his first year as a volunteer, Burr said the fantasy flight had brought so much joy and happiness into his daughter that he wanted to help out and be a part of the event in some way.
Fantasy flights take place in 13 cities, including internationally in London and Guam.
This year, the fantasy flights occurred at all of United’s major domestic hubs, including: Phoenix, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Denver, Honolulu and Newark, according to United Airlines website.
Marilyn M. Harris, vice president of community relations at Beth Israel Hospital, praised the organizers and participants, trying to explain the joy it creates.
“Eight children from Beth Israel Hospital are here today,” she said. “This is an event for children that are very ill. Some of these children have hemophilia, leukemia and some are in the process of receiving cancer treatment.”
University Hospital program assistant Stephanie Welch enthusiastically told LocalSource,
“We are excited to be here.”