MINNEAPOLIS — Now boarding at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s main terminal: a commercial “aircraft cabin” where passengers can practice putting luggage in overhead bins and inserting the buckle and pulling the strap tight.

The mock aircraft, now permanently stationed near Gate C16 in Terminal 1, will host airport and public safety training exercises, and support MSP programs that help passengers, including those with disabilities, feel more comfortable flying.

“Individuals can learn about the aircraft without the stress of the moment,” said Thomas Panek, CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a New York-based nonprofit organization that trains guide dogs. “We travel for fun and excitement, and to connect with loved ones, but you can feel anxious when you hear the final boarding call.”

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Panek, who is blind, said at an opening ceremony recently he had a lot of questions when he first flew with his guide dog more than 20 years ago. “I didn’t have the benefit of this experience,” he added, as his guide dog, a handsome yellow Labrador named Blaze, curled up near his seat.

The 33-foot faux aircraft cabin was previously used to train Delta Air Lines flight teams in Atlanta. The airline donated the components, as well as 42 seats from a retired Boeing 737, which were reassembled and christened the Travel Confidently MSP Education Center.

Beyond Delta’s donation, the cost of the project was about $150,000 — a tab shared between the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and Airport Foundation MSP.

The education center will help the Navigating MSP program provide would-be passengers with sensory, physical or cognitive disabilities, and those who fear flying, a place to practice boarding in a realistic setting. It will also give service dogs the chance to get familiar with an aircraft cabin.

Mary Loeffelholz, Delta’s vice president of operations at MSP, said the center is a “one-of-a-kind facility” that gives users an “innovative pre-flight experience.”

Delta’s donation allows the airport to “provide a life-like training environment without the use of an actual aircraft, which will build confidence in air travel for more people in our community,” said Brian Ryks, the MAC’s executive director and CEO, in a statement.

This comes as the airport is in the midst of what is expected to be the busiest summer travel season since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

After a recent ribbon-cutting, officials and the media crowded into the pod-like structure, which features original artwork from local youth artists at Minneapolis-based Juxtaposition Arts.

“They should have done this 10 years ago,” said Darrell Paulsen, who has cerebral palsy and serves on the MSP Travelers with Disabilities Advisory Committee.

“At times, it can be stressful flying with a wheelchair,” he said.

© 2022 Star Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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