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High-flying holiday fun

Santa, ASU student-athletes and a whole merry crew fly underprivileged kids to the 'North Pole' at Phoenix airport

Children smile on an airplane.

December 04, 2015

“Final boarding call — Santa One, to the North Pole!” the gate attendant called into the intercom, then rang sleigh bells in the mic.

That was the first indication this wasn’t your average trip on an airplane.

Flight attendants wore elf ears and Santa hats. No one stared at screens or pecked on laptops. Even though it was dawn, everyone smiled and was happy to be there. And every passenger was under age 10.

That was the scene Friday morning during the annual United Fantasy Flight Phoenix, an airborne excursion where more than 100 underprivileged children are flown for 20 minutes and then landed at the North Pole (it’s a different gate) to meet Santa, Sparky and Arizona State University student-athletes; eat breakfast; get their faces painted; and receive a big bag of gifts.

Phebe Mahoney, 6, and Arianthra Luchno, 7, both from Mesa Arts Academy, shared a row in the middle of the plane.

Friends hold hands during the United Fantasy Flight Phoenix to the North Pole (that is, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport) on Dec. 4. For many, it was their first flight.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Phebe took the airsickness bag out of the seatback, borrowed a pen, and wrote her name and a heart on the bag.

“Quiet down,” a stewardess said in vain before beginning the pre-flight safety speech, which included this:

“Santa doesn’t like smoking,
And neither do we.
If you light up,
We’ll give you a trip to jail for free.”

“We’re not moving,” Phebe said. Santa One taxied to the west. She held hands with Arianthra, both unsure what to expect next.

The captain came on the intercom. “Are you ready to go to the North Pole? I can’t hear you!”

The plane lifted off, and 110 shrill voices shrieked in unison, drowning the GE turbines and piercing the terrorist-proof cockpit door, the captain attested later.

Sue Douglas, principal of the Mesa Arts Academy, brought 50 children to the event. Ninety percent of the kids in her district live in poverty.

“The majority of our kids have never been near a plane,” Douglas said.

Every month the school holds a college-themed rally to encourage higher education. “Right now they’re going to be with college kids,” she said. “They’re excited about that.”

The sun rose over the mountains, framed in bands of pink and orange. “Jingle Bells” was sung.

Phebe stared out the window, then sank in her seat. “I want my mommy,” she said.

A flight attendant singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” stole the show from the windows momentarily; then a wing dipped, the jet turned, and all attention reverted to the windows again.

“I want to go faster,” Arianthra said.

A little girl wears a glowing headband.
The novelty of air travel waning, Phebe wanted to wear a glowing red and green headband making the rounds. (And she eventually got to, pictured left.)

“Are we almost there?” Arianthra asked 15 minutes into the 20-minute flight.

Passengers became unruly. “That boy threw hair on me,” Phebe said.

Douglas’ school had been on Fantasy Flights before, but it was her first time escorting students. They had gathered in the school parking lot at 4:15 a.m.

“It’s great for these kids,” she said. “It’s absolutely fabulous. It’s a life-changing experience for them.”

The plane landed and taxied toward the gate. “We have to stop!” Phebe correctly noted. She held up her airsickness bag. “Can I keep this?”

When the plane stopped, Douglas stood in the aisle.

“Turn around. Eyes on me. Eyes on me. Mr. Vega, I need you to use your ears. Are we ready? Eyes on me. Look at all those beautiful eyes.”

When the plane did stop, it was greeted by Santa and Mrs. Claus, Elsa from “Frozen,” Sparky, the ASU Spirit Squad, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, 65 ASU student-athletes and other assorted dignitaries.

Flight attendant Cathy Findorff compared the morning’s passengers with her typical load. “A lot louder, a lot more fun,” she said.

“It reminds me what Christmas is all about,” flight attendant Sherri Schmidt said. “They’re so excited over so little.”

It was the 19th United Fantasy Flight Phoenix. “We basically steal a plane,” said Rich Vehring, retired Phoenix city manager and one of the event’s founders. “It’s so rewarding, and it’s so much fun.”

United Airlines Capt. Bob Miller, another event founder and member of the ASU Class of 1987, flew the very first Fantasy Flight out of London in 1991. He flew 100 children from an orphanage to a reindeer farm in Lapland, Finland.

“It was such a magical day I came back to Phoenix and said, ‘Why don’t we do it here?’ ” Miller said. “ASU makes such a difference here with these kids.”