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 can be 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. Gate changes, delays, and cancellations are verbally announced, and you’re the last to know! 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. Online, you’ll be asked if you require special services, and you can select from a list. Your “deaf” declaration alerts the airline that you may require special assistance. Your name and your special needs will be noted on the passenger manifest. The gate agents and flight attendants will be informed in advance that you will be onboard.
If you have already booked airline tickets, but did not include disability information, you may update your reservation online, by telephone, or ask the travel agent who booked your ticket to do it for you.
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. You may be traveling with a trusted hearing companion who will keep you informed. You may be technologically savvy, and have an app from your airline on your Smartphone that keeps you updated. Also, if your hearing loss is not severe, you simply may not want or need to identify your hearing impairment.
If you have listed as “deaf,” follow-up with a phone call to the airline to request disability seating, if you desire. Disability seats are set aside to provide 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.
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, it is possible that you will be offered an aisle seat elsewhere on the plane where a flight attendant could easily access you.
I have observed that 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.
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 is accomplished after first-class boarding. One of the advantages of pre-boarding is you will 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.
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 if turbulence is forecast.
- 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. It’s an important announcement has been 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. I don’t need any special attention.” I still quickly point out the locations of the two closest sets of exits, the flight attendant call lights, and the lavatories. I mention to don an oxygen mask right away in the event of decompression. (I have never been on one yet!)
If you are on a plane that is video equipped, the safety demonstrations (seat belts, oxygen masks, smoking prohibition, etc.) will be captioned.
Generally, airlines also have their safety demonstrations in written form. Puzzlingly, the written form is sometimes a Braille booklet. Deaf people have been surprised if not shocked when handed a Braille card! I hope that flight attendants do not assume that deaf and hard of hearing people have all been taught Braille! The written words are typed around the Braille language, enabling 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.
Nowadays many non-safety announcements are made in the air. It may be a blessing in disguise that you are spared some of the marketing and sales campaigns. Airlines promote credit cards, the Skymall® shopping catalog, and featured merchants that can be accessed through the onboard 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 you may use electronic devices and when you need to turn them off, and inform you of predicted turbulence, delays, and other irregular operations. They may be able to get connecting gate information for you, but if they do, be aware that gates sometimes change at the last minute, especially at major airports.
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 to you online, even on the airline’s own website, 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.
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 onboard. Many planes in the domestic market run out of overhead bin space when the flight is about two-thirds boarded. Some passengers are unexpectedly forced to check their carry-on bags at the gate to be picked up later at baggage claim at their final destination.
Always bring your keys, medicines, and necessary medical articles in a purse or tiny carry-on that fits under your seat. If you are 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. It is rare that a bag that is checked at the gate gets lost nowadays. However, there can be lengthy unexpected mechanical or weather-related delays and you will need to 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, onboard the aircraft, at baggage claim, etc. It’s a great idea during your travels to wear those buttons that are distributed at SWC conventions: “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.