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Too old to travel alone? Companies provide escorts

Courtesy of the Olman Family

Alma Mueller, right, is seen with her daughter, Joyce Mueller Olman and son, Wade Mueller, in a 2010 family photo in Olman's home.

In December 2009, Joyce Olman of Maumee, Ohio, put her then 92-year-old mother, Alma Mueller, on a flight from Toledo to Milwaukee, Wis., so mom could spend the holidays with Olman’s brother.

“With my husband, we drove to Toledo, found a wheelchair attendant and got a pass to escort her to the gate,” said Olman. “We panicked a bit when they didn’t make an announcement to board wheelchair passengers, because while she can walk, she can’t see very well, so we were sure she’d never find her seat.” Fortunately, another couple on the same flight offered to help Mueller get seated and settled in. “By the time plane took off, we were exhausted,” said Olman.

After that adventure, the family did some research and found Flying Companions, an Atlanta-based company that provides trained escorts for older people and others needing some assistance while traveling. 

On her next two trips, Mueller was picked up at her home, escorted to the airport and to her son’s home in Milwaukee and escorted back home at the end of the visit. Costs for such services can range from $1,700 to more than $3,000. “Yes, it was a little pricey,” said Olman. But the value of reassurance? “To us? $1 million.”

As America's population ages, some companies are beginning to offer travel companion services for seniors or disabled travelers, modeled after programs airlines currently have in place for unaccompanied minors, to help older fliers safely get where they are going and back home again.

'From here to there'
As of April 1, there were 40.3 million Americans age 65 years and older, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 13 percent of the U.S. population, or about one in eight Americans. By 2030, about one in five Americans will be over the age of 65. 

Courtesy Flying Companions

Doug Iannelli founded Flying Companions in 2007.

Airlines recognize that a portion of their customers need assistance and usually provide airport attendants to help travelers get to, from and between planes.

However, “if a flight is delayed or gets canceled, no airline employee is usually available to stay with the customer,” said Doug Iannelli, who  founded Flying Companions in 2007 after learning that a friend had no one to accompany her from Atlanta to Rochester, Minn., for a medical treatment.

Since then, his clients have included older people moving from one place to another and others traveling to visit friends or attend business meetings or family events. “We’re definitely seeing more people who need help getting from here to there,” he said. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are popular times, but so is June when a lot of grandchildren are graduating.

While workers at Flying Companions do not have medical training, Iannelli said the company conducts background checks on its potential employees and provides training for its staff. For many older adults, it’s the airport — most notably the security checkpoint — that is the most daunting part of a trip.  

“Many people have not traveled for a while,” Iannelli said. “And with everything that’s changed since 9/11, people worry about how they’re going to get through the process.”

Related: Another elderly flier claims TSA strip-search at JFK

Flying Companions is not the only company offering travel escorts for elderly clients. Anticipating a growing need for such services, some entrepreneurs are setting up shop as well.

In October, Mark Austin founded Buffalo, Minn.-based MedSafe Travel to provide home-care services to clients who need assistance when they travel. The company, through a partnership with Prairie River Home Care, provides travel companions who have "one or more years of experience working in a home health care or other related long-term care environment," according to the company's website. MedSafe Travel is scheduled to assist its first traveler on a vacation in Cancun later this month. "This is a preview of what you’ll find in the boomer market,” Austin said.

At Accessible Journeys, a 26-year-old Ridley Park, Pa., travel company that specializes in planning vacations for travelers in wheelchairs, companion services are available as an extra for those who book a vacation through the company. “It’s not inexpensive and it’s not a ‘Come along with me’ service,” said company president Howard McCoy. “It’s for people who require some physical assistance to function in part of their day. But let me tell you, that extra assistance has helped a lot of people check off a lot of places and experiences on their bucket list.”

'Money left on the table'
Such personalized service comes with a high price tag. One-way trip assistance in the U.S. with Flying Companions costs between $1,700 and $2,500, said Iannelli. Round-trip costs can run $2,500 to $3,500. Those costs include airfare for both the client and the travel companion, ground transportation and incidentals, such as lunch at the airport.

MedSafe Travel, which bases companion prices on the destination and level of skills required, estimates rates at $200-$400 per day, not including airfare, accommodations, meals and other travel or tour expenses.

At Accessible Journeys, travel companions are paid weekly wages beginning at $900. Room, board and transportation is extra.

“From the travel perspective, there’s a lot of money left on the table if people don’t think they can travel,” said Andrew Garnett, president and CEO of Special Needs Group, a company that rents out medical equipment such as wheelchairs or oxygen units for guests at hotels, resorts or on cruises.

Garnett notes that 20 percent of the U.S. population, about 62 million Americans, has some form of disability. He counts among the accessible market baby boomers and mature adults who may have difficulty walking or are hard of hearing and do not consider themselves disabled. "Those people could benefit from travel-related special needs products and services,” he said.

In response, this month the company began offering a certified, online travel advocate course for travel professionals.

Roberta Schwartz, a travel agent and a professor in hospitality at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami, Fla., was one of the first participants in the course. Schwartz is seeing more companies being created to provide travel companion services for mature adults and people with disabilities.

“This isn’t just a business opportunity,” said Schwartz. “It’s something we have to prepare for. As baby boomers age, they’re not going to want to slow down.”

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on StuckatTheAirport.com and follow her on Twitter.