United Airlines’ Flight 2799, which departed from Dulles International Airport on Saturday morning, was not your average holiday slog.
No struggling to get luggage in the overhead bins. No attempts to squeeze that oversized bag under the seats. And no one truly upset about getting the middle seat.
Instead, passengers found the interior of the 777 was bedecked in wreaths, ribbons and glittery garlands. Flight attendants wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers passed out candy canes and Christmas cookies.
And when the plane descended into the “North Pole” — a location that looked strangely similar to the Dulles Airport travelers had recently departed — 100 grinning children cheered in their seats and chanted “San-ta! San-ta! San-ta!”
Those children and their parents were passengers on this year’s Washington “Fantasy Flight,” an annual holiday event organized by United Airlines and Children’s Hospice International to give children with serious medical conditions a real-life flight to visit Santa on his home turf. Sort of.
The special flights take place around the country. At the one at Dulles on Saturday, families boarded a plane that took off from the runway. Twenty minutes later, upon landing, they entered an airport terminal transformed into a winter wonderland, dripping with festive decorations and complete with Disney princesses, Santa’s elves, Washington Nationals mascots, pageant queens, therapy dogs, clowns, jugglers, a squad of yellow Minions, a troupe of bagpipers, a jazz band and an inflatable bounce house.
And, of course, there was Santa and his wife, setting up shop at the end of the airport terminal to listen to children’s wishes.
“Our goal is really just to give them this few hours of joy,” said Bill Watts, director of ramp operations for United Airlines.
To pull off the event, pilots and flight attendants offered to work free, and United’s local fuel provider picked up the tab for the cost of the gas.
Watts said the flight is meant to serve as a mini-vacation for families facing the challenges of caring for a sick child, especially families who may not be able to travel during the holiday because of their child’s medical needs.
“It was really something to look forward to while we’ve been going through all the stress of treatments,” said Tina Decker of Alexandria as she waited at the boarding gate with her daughter, Emily, in her arms. Emily is 1, and getting treatment for kidney cancer at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s pediatric oncology unit.
Her husband, Erik Decker, had a less sentimental reason for appreciating the excursion. He nodded at his other two daughters, who are 2 and 4 years old.
“Getting on a plane to go see Santa — it’s a great way to get them to behave for the last couple of days,” he joked.
The plane ride wasn’t quite so joyful for 9-year-old Gitavia Marshall-Lopez of Fort Washington, Md. — she’s not a big fan of turbulence, it turns out — but she later concluded that the trip was worth it to get some face-to-face time with Santa so she could ask for an iPhone to give to her mom.
Her favorite part of the flight?
“Those cookies were really, really good,” Gitavia said.
The federally mandated safety demonstration was conducted in the style of ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. (A sample: “Now please check to see that your seat belts are tight, They’re easy to fasten so please get it right!”)
A flight attendant walked through the aisles handing out immigration forms, titled “North Pole Landing Documentation.”
Nathan and Yann Job, 8- and 12-year-olds from Bethesda, Md., weren’t quite buying into the notion that they were truly headed to the North Pole. Still, they took the immigration forms seriously, using their dad’s phone to Google the answers to North Pole-related trivia questions.
Nathan is a patient at Georgetown Hospital, where he receives treatment for sickle cell disease. His father, Henri Job, said he was a small bit wary when his family received the invitation to the Fantasy Flight — after all, who would intentionally subject themselves to a crowded airport during peak holiday season? But he was shocked when he realized the event featured a real flight.
“I did not expect this, to go through security and everything. This is really just amazing,” Job said.
And though there was no return flight scheduled for the children concluding their North Pole adventures, they had another surprise waiting for them when they finally exited the terminal on Saturday afternoon, made their way back through baggage claim, and headed toward the door to the parking lot.
In the time that they had been on their “Fantasy Flight,” it had begun to snow.
It was a real-life winter wonderland.