6 ways the Phoenix airport is making travel easier for passengers with disabilities

Shanti Lerner
Arizona Republic

Lee en español

Gary Ostafin knows first hand how overwhelming airports can be. He’s been a volunteer at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for over 12 years, helping travelers with all kinds of issues who need a little extra time and care to navigate the busy airport. 

But his first-hand experience didn’t come from working at Sky Harbor. It came from caring for his wife, who had been diagnosed with dementia.

Ostafin told his story to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego when she visited Sky Harbor’s Sensory Room, a dementia-friendly space in Terminal 4, on Feb. 17. Ostafin was excited to share what the airport has to offer for people with similar situations. 

“I realized how much help people need,” Ostafin said. “As for myself, I look at it from the standpoint of a caregiver caring for my wife for many years. When you’re coming into the airport with someone and you’re nervous about bringing them in and you get here and they don't know their way around, it can be overwhelming.

"If we as volunteers can meet them at the gate and escort them all the way through to get their baggage or help in other ways, it would make a big difference.”

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has several programs if you, a friend or a family member needs some extra assistance while traveling. Here’s what’s available. 

The Compassion Corner

The entrance to the Compassion Corner, located on level 3 behind elevator B at Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 4 in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2022.

This space was created to support travelers with a variety of physical and mental issues that affect their ability to navigate the airport. Over 400 volunteers like Ostafin, each working four-hour shifts, come to the airport to help make the Compassion Corner's initiatives possible. Among the services are a Sensory Room, the Compassion Cacti Lanyard Program, Navigator Buddies and the Compassion Corner chapel. 

The Sensory Room 

If the airport’s noises and crowds are too much to handle, the Sensory Room is a quiet option for individuals or families. The room has tables, chairs, a couch, books, coloring books and puzzles. There are even airplane seats that people can sit on to get a feel for a real flight environment. 

Airplane seats donated by Southwest sit in the Sensory Room in the Compassion Corner at Sky Harbor Terminal 4 for people to use to familiarize themselves with the airplane environment before they get on their flights in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2022.

“It was really important for us to put a simulation of what it's like on an airplane,” said Misty Cisneros-Contreras, the airport's customer service manager. “For so many young individuals with sensory challenges, they have a fear of getting on a plane or something they have never experienced before.

"So families and even adults can come in here and get out of the busy environment of the airport and regroup or refocus before they get on their flight. Our friends with dementia can also come in here and feel what it's like to be on a plane.” 

In September 2021, the airport joined Dementia Friendly America, a national program that helps individuals living with dementia through organizations and community outreach.

Compassion Cacti Lanyard Program

One way that airport volunteers and staff can identify a passenger who needs a little extra grace is through the Compassion Cacti lanyard program.

A poster about the Compassion Cacti lanyard program hangs as a reminder for employees near the Compassion Corner at Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 4 in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2022.

Cisneros-Contreras said the program was inspired by a similar one at London's Gatwick Airport that helps recognize individuals who have conditions such as autism that are not visible. 

By wearing the lanyard, a visitor can subtly alert any airport staff member or volunteer that they need a bit more time or assistance completing a task, The Arizona Republic when the program launched in 2020

Cisneros-Contreras said passengers do not need to provide proof of their disability when asking for a lanyard. 

“We do not require any medical records or doctor notes,” Cisneros-Contreras said. “If you came to us and said I have a hidden disability, we would gladly provide that lanyard to you. Anyone is eligible for a lanyard if they self identify and believe that they need one.” 

To get a Compassion Cacti lanyard, fill out the form at

The airport will review the request and respond in five to seven days. You can pick up the lanyard at the Compassion Corner office at Sky Harbor before or on the day of your flight. 

Navigator Buddies

Bodie, a service dog available for flyers to pet, stands near the Compassion Corner at Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 4 in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2022.

Just plain having a stressful travel day? Navigator Buddies is a free program in which friendly dogs and their owners volunteer to roam the terminals, offering opportunities for passengers of all ages to pet and enjoy some time with a furry friend.

Dogs and handlers must meet a variety of requirements to qualify as a Navigator Buddies. Among them:

  • They must be registered and in good standing with a qualified pet therapy organization.
  • Have six months or more of dog therapy experience. 
  • Be able to pass an FBI screening and qualify for an airport security badge.

Compassion Corner chapel

Inside the Compassion Corner is a chapel where all may worship or reflect. The chapel is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Visitors can meet with a religious representative based on availability, and there are services for various religious holidays.

The chapel is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. During those hours staff members can help connect visitors with a chaplain. Chaplains come in for two to three hours at a time throughout the week. 

TSA Cares

In addition to the programs that Sky Harbor Airport offers, the Transportation Security Administration's TSA Cares program also is available in Phoenix. People who need extra support through security, whether due to a disability, medical condition or other circumstance, can call in advance to let the agency know.

A specially trained TSA agent called a passenger support specialist will meet the traveler at security to guide them through the screening process.

TSA Cares is generally open to anyone who believes they would benefit from extra support navigating security and is available nationwide. Some of the most common requests are from people with autism, those who use a wheelchair or scooter, travelers with cognitive disabilities and passengers with diabetes.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at  or you can also follow her on Twitter

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