Air Travel with Your Hearing Loss

by Rosie Greer, Flight Attendant and SWC Member

I travel for a living. Every working day, I experience the wonders of air travel.   Air travel with hearing loss is complicated. I know first-hand that travel arrangements don’t always go smoothly.

For passengers who do not hear well, airline travel is a challenge. You’re the last to know when gate changes, delays, and cancellations announced! Perhaps there are visual indicators, video monitors that indicate schedule changes, and you eventually see the updates and catch on.

Passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing often do not realize they are entitled to certain assistance and benefits.

Here’s how to get the most out of your airline experience.


Booking Your Flights

I advise that you identify yourself as “deaf” when you purchase your tickets online, by telephone, or through your travel agent. You’ll be asked about special services online.  Select from a list the services that you require.  Your “deaf” declaration alerts the airline that you may require special assistance.  Your name and your special needs are noted on the passenger manifest. The gate agents and flight attendants are informed in advance that you will be on board.

If you have already booked airline tickets, but did not include disability information, it is possible to update your reservation online, by telephone, or ask the travel agent who booked your ticket to do it for you.

Deciding whether to “code’ yourself

Although a wise idea to “code” yourself, doing so is a personal decision. Some people do not wish to call attention to their disabilities and believe they can get along without assistance. Sometimes, hearing companions keep you informed. Phone apps from your airline can keep you updated. Also, if your hearing loss is not severe, you simply may not want or need to identify your hearing impairment.

If you listed yourself as “deaf,” follow-up with a phone call to the airline to request disability seating, if you desire. Disability seats provides convenient boarding for the passenger, and easy access to a forward aircraft boarding door. Disability seating is located in the row or rows right after first class on many airplanes, unless that row also happens to be an emergency exit row. It is a reasonable accommodation for passengers with hearing disabilities to sit close to the front of the aircraft. You need to see the flight attendants making announcements in order to lip read. You require assurance that the flight attendant can access you quickly when he or she has important information or in the event of an emergency.

Disability seating

However, not all disability seats are great. It depends on the aircraft and the seat arrangements. On some planes, if you are seated at a bulkhead, you might not have storage room under the seat in front of you. Some bulkhead disability seats have stationary armrests. Such seats might constrict larger people.

If interested in sitting close to the front of the aircraft, put in a request for the mandatory disability seats. There’s no need for discussion, no need to plead a case. Simply state, “I require disability seating.”

Your seating request could be denied, however, if other disabled passengers are already in those seats. If the company has already sold the more desirable seats to other people, the airline might will offer an aisle seat elsewhere on the plane.   Aisle seats make it easier for the flight attendant to access you.

Some airlines do not mention disability seating for deaf people on their websites, perhaps hoping to keep those seats open for passengers with walking handicaps. Bear in mind, disability seats are intended for all disability groups.

Don’t pay extra fees for disability seating

A current business trend, a new stream of income for many airlines, is to charge an additional fee for the seats that were once dedicated disability seats. Airlines put nicer slipcovers over the chairs, and rearranged the rows to provide more legroom.  Frequent flyers get these preferred seats for free. Other passengers pay a hefty surcharge in order to sit in them. However, at least one row of those upgraded economy seats is still a mandatory disability area. Should you be assigned an “economy comfort” or “comfort plus” seat based on your request for a disability seat, remember this: you do not have to pay the premium fee that someone else must pay to sit there.



When you get to the gate, go directly to the gate agent and identify yourself. Ask him or her to approach you when pre-boarding begins.

At some airlines, pre-boarding is first, before all other passengers. At other airlines, pre-boarding happens after first-class boarding. One of the advantages of pre-boarding is you can find space for your carry-on luggage! Many airplanes in the US domestic market do not have enough storage room for every passenger’s luggage.

Note: Many of the smaller “airlink” planes require everyone to “gate check” all their carry-on bags except for purses and computer cases, and other small articles. On such flights, the articles are also returned to the jetbridge after landing.

The main reason for pre-boarding is to allow a flight attendant to provide you with an individual safety briefing before other passengers charge into the plane.


Safety Briefing

A flight attendant is required to come to your seat to familiarize you with the layout of the aircraft, and basic safety procedures. The flight attendant must also ask how he or she can assist you during flight.

Common requests and communication from hard of hearing or deaf passengers include:

  • Tell me when safety announcements are made.
  • Tell me if our plane is going to be late.
  • Let me know about turbulence forecasts.
  • Can someone accompany me to my next gate?
  • I communicate in writing. I lip read.
  • Please write down important information and bring it to me. If an important announcement is made, please bring it to me in writing.

Some deaf people wave me away when I attempt to provide an individual safety briefing.  “I travel all the time,and I don’t need any special attention.” Quickly, I point out the locations of the two closest sets of exits, the flight attendant call lights, and the lavatories. Then, I mention to don an oxygen mask right away in the event of decompression. (I have never been on one yet!)

Safety demonstrations and booklets

If you are on a plane that is video equipped, the safety demonstrations (seat belts, oxygen masks, smoking prohibition, etc.) are captioned.

Generally, airlines also have their safety demonstrations in written form. Puzzlingly, the written form is sometimes a Braille booklet. Deaf people feel surprised, if not shocked, when handed a Braille card! I hope flight attendants do not assume deaf and hard of hearing people have all been taught Braille!  Written words, found typed around the Braille language, enables you to read up on emergency procedures and safety features of the aircraft. Other airlines have separate informational booklets about your airplane that a flight attendant will offer you.


In Flight

Nowadays many non-safety announcements happen in the air. Airlines promote credit cards, the Skymall® shopping catalog, and featured merchants accessed through the on board wifi Internet system. There is no need for the flight attendants to convey this marketing information to you.

However, as arranged in your individual briefing, a flight attendant will tell you during flight when it is safe to use electronic devices, and when you need to turn them off.  They inform you of predicted turbulence, delays, and other irregular operations. They sometimes get connecting gate information for you. But if they do, be aware that gates sometimes change at the last minute, especially at major airports.


General Advice

If you are connecting through a major airport such as Chicago, Atlanta, or Dallas, make sure that you have enough time to make your connecting flight. Just because a flight is offered online doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make the connecting flight. There is a trend to offer flights with a half-hour connection time in huge airports. Under ideal circumstances, that short connection may work. If your flight is even a little bit late, it will not. Airlines recommend minimum connections on their websites, but the connection advice is not always easy to find. Do not ever book a flight where the connection is less than the suggested minimum connection time.

Your carry-on bag

If you pre-board your flight, you will likely have room for your carry-on baggage. Because most airlines charge extra to check luggage, with Southwest Airlines still the exception, passengers bring more luggage than ever on board. When the flight is two-thirds full, many planes in the domestic market run out of overhead bin space. Some passengers end up checking their carry-on bags at the gate unexpectedly.

Always bring your keys, medicines, and necessary medical articles in a purse or tiny carry-on that fits under your seat. If required to check a larger carry-on because there’s no room for it on the airplane, remove your medicines, medical devices, hearing aid related items, computer, and keys. Checked bags rarely get lost. However, lengthy and unexpected mechanical or weather-related delays require that you have your medicines and medical equipment handy. In the unlikely event that a checked bag goes missing after your journey, you’ll be glad to have your keys to start your car and open your house.


The Air Trip

In short, at each point of contact in the airports and on the plane, convey your special hearing-related needs directly to an employee. At the ticket counter, at the gate, on board the aircraft, at baggage claim, etc.  It’s a great idea to wear those buttons that say, “Please get my attention. I’m hard of hearing.” Let everyone know!

By the way: if you declare yourself as “deaf”, you may not sit in an emergency exit row. Keep in mind that emergency exit seating is not about the legroom, though that’s a bonus. You are expected to help in an evacuation, hold the slides until the last person exits a damaged or burning airplane, etc. You must be able to hear commands from a flight attendant and rapidly convey those commands to other people, while responding to passengers and flight attendants in a likely noisy and chaotic environment. Most hard of hearing people I know have zero interest in sitting in an exit row, but for those who like the legroom, you now know that you now have other even better options!

Have a nice flight!

Rosie Geer is a flight attendant for a major airline. She has shared insights based only on her personal experiences and research. Policies may differ depending on the airline.

726 thoughts on “Air Travel with Your Hearing Loss

  1. This is great, thank you for posting all of this valuable information. I am legally deaf, and recently booked a flight and flew alone for the first time ever. People were asking me if I was nervous about moving across the country by myself, and I said “No! I’m more worried about the flight!”. I needn’t have been. Every step of the way I informed those in authority that I was deaf, and they all guided me perfectly without being rude or condescending. I was first to board the plane (seriously, a bonus!) and I was introduced by first name to every flight attendant present. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful and I was not turned into a spectacle, as I originally feared I might. In all honesty, the flight was 100x easier than past flights I have made with hearing friends that I would rely on to keep me informed. This experience made me want to travel on my own much more!

  2. I wanted to share links to articles that I wrote about that issue and also about my interview by someone in airline industry who’s interested in understanding our experiences and improving communication/information access for us during airline travels via captions.

  3. I read your article, audioaccess, and left a comment there, but will repost my comment here also:

    I’m deaf, and I’ve traveled on hundreds, maybe even thousands, of flights since 1991. My husband took a job with a major airline that year and we’ve enjoyed flight benefits since.

    During one particular busy travel year, I decided to experiment during my time at the airport and inflight, interacting with airport and airline personnel. It was an interesting study and the flight where I was offered the most direct accommodation was on a flight where I chose not to speak for the entire trip. Somehow not speaking made my deafness more memorable.

    A lot has changed in the last five to ten years, and airline/airport personel are more sensitive to the needs of deaf travelers, but it is very dependent on the actual person you are dealing with. I find little that is uniform and universal, even though I do mainly fly on one airline.

    Contrary to what Ms. Kouznetsova states in your article, I was offered a wheelchair for the first time this year, and the same is true for being offered Braille assistance. I have heard others say they have been offered the wrong assistance, but in my experience it’s more a lack of offering any assistance at all. Most of the time my indicating “Hearing Impaired”, under the special services that are offered when arranging for my ticket online, is ignored and no one from the airline mentions my special status or even notes that I am deaf unless I bring it up, and I always do.

    Another point: I’ve often observed that how we present ourselves makes a huge difference in how we are accommodated, and since I’ve worked out how best to get results, I do meet with much better service. I think those of us who travel with hearing loss need to continue to educate airport/airline employees on how to deal with us, as many employees still do not know what a deaf person needs, and not all of the fault for that lies with the airport and airlines. We who are deaf and have hearing loss are very diverse and I feel we sometimes send mixed messages about what is needed.

    What is a good accommodation for one person, another finds offensive. Can we really expect the airline industry to provide accommodation according to every little detail of such a diverse group? Yes, the travel industry could do a much better job of accommodating us, but also , we need to present our needs in a way that allows for more uniform and universal response.

    In addition, when we are traveling and are educating and advocating, we need to adjust the tone of our advocacy for optimum results–direct, informative, optimistic, and effective! ~~Michele Linder

  4. Great article, Rosie!! Thanks so much for sharing this valuable information with the rest of us. I hope to see you one day in Germany or the U.S. The next time I’m flying home and in MSP, I’ll let you know and we’ll get together. Or, if you are flying somewhere cool just let me know and I’ll take the same flight! ~~Michele

  5. I did not see you your comment in my blog. Also, can you let me share 2 links to my article and my interview? I tried to type links and it didn’t work. It’s true that deaf/hoh are diverse, but from my communicating with them, all of them said they want captioned announcements and entertainment. I’ve experienced both not having any access and getting the wrong kinds of accommodations. That’s why I wrote suggestions in my article for airlines to solve those issues that i wanted to share here if links coud be added here.

  6. thanks for the great article! I think I’m a pretty good traveler, but there were several ideas I hadn’t thought of. (Including asking the attendants to communicate with me in writing. I visualize that as dropping little notes on my lap that say “turbulance coming” or “running 15 minutes late” instead of trying to hear/lipread over the noise in the airplane. My shoulders drop a good inch, just imagining that.

  7. Question: If I’m traveling with a hearing companion, can we both be pre-boarded? Can we still sit together or do I have to give up the companionship to get the services?

  8. Passengers with disabilities are usually pre-boarded if they travel alone or have a physical disability (with or without a companion), but many deaf people prefer not to and it would not make sense for them to pre-board anyway if they have a hearing companion. You can sit together with a hearing companion. However, it would not make sense for you to get communication access services if your hearing companion can tell you announcements. Even if I travel alone and happen to have a good chat with a friendly seat mate, they usually help me with announcements – though I’m hoping for more airlines to make all of aural information captioned everywhere.

  9. Hi Carol,

    I’ve traveled with a hearing companion and have had no problem with them pre-boarding with me, though sometimes my husband prefers not to pre-board.

    I always pre-board whether alone or with a companion. I don’t like to be made to rely on hearing companion, I want to be responsible for myself whether I’m alone, or not. That’s just me, and others may be fine with relying on a hearing person.

    I guess I’m a little sensitive of how invisible I become when I’m traveling with a hearing companion. Example: On a flight to Burlington, VT I had checked the special services “hearing impaired” when I booked my ticket online. The flight attendant, without getting my attention first, began talking to me. I looked up in mid-sentence and had no idea what she was saying. She then looked at my husband and chatted. After she left, I asked my husband what she said and he relayed that she wanted to know if I needed anything because of my special status. When the flight attendant returned, I told her that she should talk to me directly, that I read lips very well, but she has to get my attention first before speaking. I educated her a little bit and told her that while some passengers might be comfortable getting second-hand info from their hearing companion, many deaf people want to be spoken to directly. The flight attendant was very appreciative that I was direct with her. ~~Michele

  10. So glad you found this information helpful, Carol. Rosie is a great source of information about air travel, and other things.

  11. Lucille, we at SWC are thrilled you’ve learned something here!!! Be sure to follow our blog posts, and we also have a Facebook page where we post links to new articles on the blog. Simply scroll down and click on “Facebook”.

  12. If you listed yourself as “deaf” or “hearing impaired,” it is critical to preboard so the flight attendants can meet and brief you before general boarding begins. It becomes logistically difficult for any flight attendant to reach your seat once the normal boarding chaos starts, especially on a single aisle plane. There are luggage issues, families upset about their seating, businesspeople upset because they are sitting next to families and didn’t get “their” upgrade, passengers running to the lavatories and asking for water and Tylenol. Most flights in the US are crewed to FAA minimum crew–one flight attendant for every 50 physical seats. You help the crew and yourself by preboarding, even if you have a hearing travel companion. Sometimes those darned travel companions are asleep when important announcements are made! It’s in everyone’s interest when the FAs have met you and are keeping you in mind should any flight irregularites happen.

  13. “Hearing impaired” is not the preferred term by many of us – because it’s medical. We prefer to be called “deaf and hard of hearing”. Also, I wrote the article about air travel issues with recommendations that the system needs to be improved that all airline personnel is aware of passengers with disabilities without having to be constantly reminded throughout the trip. I wanted to share the link to my article, but it won’t go through here. You can find it on audio accessibility website.

  14. “Hearing Impaired” is how the airline I fly categorizes the Deaf, deaf, deafened and hard of hearing under the “Special Services” tab, when purchasing a ticket online. I think the point is that if you have identified yourself as needing special services (however a particular airline chooses to label you) then you need to make sure you pre-board so the flight attendants can properly brief you according to your need.

    Focusing on the label is often a moot point. The Minnesota Workforce labeled me as a person with a “disability”, though I would prefer another term. The important thing here was obtaining job seeking assistance and my energy was focused there, not on how they chose to label me. I think the same is true in this instance. We’re talking about how to help passengers who do not hear well overcome the challenge of airline travel.

  15. An interesting article from the Flight Attendant perspective. I also travel rather a lot – most weeks I have a return flight somewhere. The problem always is access to information when things are non-standard. If everything is normal then not being able to hear may not be an issue – EXCEPT – airlines operations are geared to voice announcements and they have almost all reduced the number of agents at the gates to one. This one person is extremely busy especially if something is not quite right and they are having to deal with it, tell the aircraft crew and ramp crews what is happening, contact their ops and ask for information or help etc etc.

    I have contacted airlines and proposed extremely simple approaches for information boards on if there is a delay and how long and what for, if the aircraft is open for boarding, which level is boarding etc. These simple information boards would also help hearing passengers arriving late at a gate and wondering what is going on.

    Many of the announcements are completely routine. These could easily be put up as a ‘ticker tape’ at the bottom of the information screens. The same in the aircraft itself for those with an entertainment system a simple ticker or even a static page as well as the verbal announcement ,

    Gate agents should be told that when they are making an announcement they should not hold the microphone in front of their face as this stops hard of hearing from seeing what they are saying. This may require the airline to obtain better microphones for the gates the current ones would not look out of place in a 1960’s film.

    All the proposals that I put forward would assist hearing passengers that are on the phone, listening to entertainment devices or who have only just arrived at the gate. The most common question after an announcement is ‘whet did they say?’ and ‘what does that mean?’ so it is not just us hearing impaired that have problems.

    However, it is extremely frustrating when standing at a crowded gate and an announcement is made with the agent holding the microphone in front of her mouth and also looking back at the information screen, and the crowd suddenly surges forward to form lines at the ‘podium’ and you are left wondering ‘I wonder what she said?’

    I actually proposed to one airline that their customer service reps should try a journey wearing sound cancelling headphones playing random surges of white noise and varying minor sevenths on a sound sythesizer into their ears. They then might appreciate how poor their information provision actually is.

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