Eighty underprivileged kids got a special Christmas surprise Saturday: an airplane ride that took them from one gate at the Boise Airport, up in the sky, and then back down to a gate made to look like the North Pole. This unique event is called Operation Santa's Sleigh.
This was the 5th year United Airlines did the event in Boise, but Saturday was the the first time it's taken place since 9/11. The kids who went on this special trip are special themselves. School counselors picked the kids they thought needed a Christmas surprise the most.
United Airlines employees dressed like elves, leading the kids through security and the boarding process. The airplane was temporarily renamed "Santa One" for the flight.
Many of the kids had never been on an airplane before.
"I'm hoping we might fly for a couple of minutes or so because I've really wanted to fly, but I've never gotten the chance because we don't have enough money," Elija Edwards said before the flight.
On board, the kids met their pilots and flight attendants-turned-elves. The kids sang Christmas carols and got a box of snacks from a decorated rolling cart.
"I think it's pretty cool because you get all the snacks you want!" student Cody Fitzpatrick said.
When they landed, Santa Claus was waving at the airplane from the jet bridge. A gate had been transformed into the North Pole, and there the kids found the toys and clothes they'd asked Santa for weeks ago in letters.
"It means a lot for him because his dad's in jail, his mom's kind of struggling right now so it kind of means a lot for the guy to come to something like this and have everything be so happy for him," Charles Allen said of one student.
As the kids ripped wrapping paper off their personalized gifts, many of them shrieked with happiness.
"It's just these kids don't have anything, and to be able to give a little bit of Christmas to them and a little bit of happiness to them, where they don't have to worry about anything, that's our goal," United employee and "Head Elf" Teresa Slagel said.
"You look at every single one of these kids and the smiles that are on their faces especially when they came off the plane and opened up their presents, you couldn't give to someone better," Allen said.
Behind the scenes, a lot of volunteers worked on this.
United employees and retirees bought all of the toys and clothes. Meridian businesses helped by contributing money for the jet fuel. Many other businesses and organizations contributed to gift bags, like the Idaho Potato Commission, which gave each child a Spuddy Buddy.