Thursday, February 2, 2012

Flying Deaf Defying Spectacular!

Actually, this is mostly just about the experience of flying on a commercial airline as a deaf individual, but that would be a boring title. In the future I might explore more about getting a pilot license while deaf as well.

Flying will be so much more fun when I have my own plane right? 

This week, I have had the unenviable task of organizing a cross-country plane flight on short notice to visit my ailing grandmother for the last time. I have no particular fear of flying, but this would be the first time in about 15 years that I have flown alone and the first time navigating the airports since my hearing loss dropped into the profound range.

I would be flying alone, so at least I didn't have to constantly pose and smile. 

I spent some time while waiting for planes and flying to document some thoughts and describe the experience of flying from a Deaf perspective or in my case, Hard of Hearing. Perhaps you will find it interesting and possibly helpful if you have to do the same thing yourself or help someone else plan a similar trip.

Step 1 - buying tickets.
The Internet has made booking flights much easier. I remember in years past being stuck on the phone with a booking agent going back and forth about flights and times and costs. While there are some benefits to dealing with a live person, I prefer the internet. I checked a few flight search sites, but I ended up using my old favorite because they have a feature I love, the flight cost matrix. You can set the search to look for flights over a range of 5 days and then see how your choice of days will affect the cost. I saved $100 by traveling on Tuesday instead of Monday and it only took a single search to discover that. I can't imagine searching every possible day with each airport option to find the best price, it would take hours. Orbitz also does aggregate searches across all domestic (and international) airlines so their is no need to check them all individually. Despite three airports all having delays due to winter storms and ice (this is all taking place in January), the storms blew past and I was able to find flights in budget and with decent timing.

The point is though, I was at no disadvantage buying tickets because of my hearing loss. It was quick, cheap, and I had all the information I needed, even about the hidden fees and baggage costs. It was all right there and easy to find.

Step 2 - packing.
After checking the airline for baggage constraints, bag size restrictions, and checked bag fees (yes it was $20 if I wanted a checked suitcase). I ended up just doing a single carry-on backpack and a small netbook case. I had to do the mandatory Federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website check to review their security constraints and lists of items to avoid packing. These are the people who are responsible for airport security and scan your bags and make you go through the metal detector. New to me was the restrictions on toiletries and gels and the restriction on liquid anything. The website was clear though and really following the "3-1-1 rules" wasn't hard at all.

My suitcase is not this cool. 

This might sound anti-social, but because hearing loss is largely about overcoming communication issues with other people, the best thing to do in my mind is to be prepared so you don't have much need to communicate with the airport staff. Know what they need you to do and what they would tell you if you asked. Even with all the bad press the TSA got last year I wasn't actually expecting a bad experience, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

A little gem I discovered was that they also have a section for "Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions" on their website. They describe working with various disability groups to ensure a smooth process. I found the Hearing Disabilities page to be encouraging at least. To their credit, the Hearing Disabilities section gives a good run down of how you can expect the TSA Officers to treat you. If I wanted to ask them to write something down or find an ASL interpreter, or simply look at me and talk clearly, the website at least gave the impression that they would. This is nice because my experience with local law enforcement shows that this isn't always the case, peace officers can become very annoyed at communication difficulties.

One other notable thing I learned: you don't have to take out hearing aides or similar devices to go through the metal detector, in fact they don't want you to and they say that the x-ray machine won't damage them. Good to know.


I didn't have any issues, the few times they had to tell me something I was facing them and they spoke clearly or I asked them to repeat it. After reading the "How To Get Through Line Faster" advice, I was prepared and did everything properly (lay out laptop, take 311 bag out of carry on, take off shoes, empty pockets and belt into carry one beforehand, etc.) so I waltzed right through the metal detector and bag x-ray process in about 2 minutes. No issues.

Step 3 - Boarding and traveling.
One thing I often forget about is the inability to comprehend intercoms. I told the airline people at the boarding gate that I couldn't hear their announcements and to let me know when boarding started and any flight information that was important (like delays). I also make a point to ask "is this the correct gate," as rarely, but occasionally, a flight is moved to a different gate and since I couldn't hear the flight number announced over the intercom, I always double check. The larger airports had this simply displayed on a TV behind the counter at the gate and was easy to read.

They often just told me to, "board whenever you want to", so that was really nice and I often got on near the start so I didn't have to jostle bags around anyone. That might vary by airline. The flights I was on didn't have first class or special seating anyway.

The in-flight safety speech they always give is pretty well acted out with understandable signs and hand motions, it's obviously designed that way. It is accompanied by the classic picture reference, but I was one of they few who even paid attention or read the pamphlet anyway (mostly just so I could blog about it). I think most people already know about the seat belts, emergency exits, and seat flotation cushions.

A picture of those pictures.
The beverage cart was the normal exchange of "I can't hear you over the noise, do you have a coke?" over the background noise of the plane, but I found a menu/drink list behind the seat, so I didn't have to ask for the list of choices.

Did you know they changed the uniform since I was a kid?

I also found out the hard way that I am pretty susceptible to changes in pressure. I had some gum out for the take off and it worked fine in keeping my ears clear, but on the landing, I didn't chew any. I got off the plane at my destination and I couldn't comprehend any speech using my hearing because my ears were so "plugged" and wouldn't pop. So, for me personally... chew gum going up and on the way down.

One last thing worth mentioning.
When I purchased the tickets online there is a disability declaration among the drop down menus. It listed things like blind, deaf, wheelchair accommodation and a dozen other things. I opted not to check "Deaf" as I thought as I was only partially deaf I probably didn't need any special consideration and I don't really know ASL yet. In retrospect, I will probably check that next time as on the plane, and with the lack of ability to hear intercoms, I was functionally deaf to anything the airline was trying to tell the passengers. If there was an in-flight emergency, they would have to tell me in person or I would just have to watch the the  passenger's reactions. If I travel with my spouse she would have the unenviable job of listening and translating the announcements. I might do some more detective work and find out what checking that box during ticket purchase actually means.

Window seats are pretty awesome when the sun rises over the mountains.

Future upgrades?
A few things the airlines could or should do that I would like to see in the future. There were TV's in front of every sea on all of my flights. Those didn't have subtitles, so even if I did want to pay the fee ($6-$8) to watch it, I still couldn't understand it. They need a subtitle toggle button to the controls. A better idea though would be for the pre-flight announcements and flight updates that are broadcast over the intercom to be broadcast on these video screens in text. Just set a special in-plane channel, even if it was all just pre-written stuff the stewards can select off of a touch screen control back in the cabin area. It would be useful. If there had been an emergency announcement, I wouldn't understand it. Even if the stewards did know I was deaf, would they come and inform me in an emergency?

Tiny little TV. I turned mine off. 

Final Thoughts:

I don't yet know enough sign language to use an interpreter and in quiet ideal situations I can read lips and understand some speech, but I found the best order of business was just to sign "deaf" then ask "do you sign?" in ASL and as I am functionally deaf in noisy environments, they treated me as such and I was fine with that. I didn't once meet anyone that knew ASL though among the security, airport, and airline staff.

Fortunately, everyone I dealt with was very professional (as they should be) and I didn't have any issues with anything. I imagine if I had to work out a ticketing problem or baggage issue it might get annoying, but I didn't and that was a blessing.

So, I hope that helps anyone planning a trip with a hearing disability. Once again, the Internet is your friend. Book online and get text/email updates on the flights, go to the airline's website for baggage information and the TSA's website for specific info about going through security and how they are trained to respond to a disability. I had no problems. Someday I hope to travel internationally and it will be interesting to see how a language barrier might stack on top of a hearing disability when flying.


TSA: Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions
TSA: Hearing Disabilities
Common Airline Baggage Guidelines

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you were smart and saved yourself a number of headaches. I was pretty worried about flying to Africa as a low-vision individual with a blind daughter but it turned out fine. Her ticket said "blind" and mine didn't but I don't think the staff even looked at it. She had her cane with her, but since I had her hand, they could see she was fine. I was mostly worried about reading the signs for the departures in airports with very little time. I did okay, and only once got really lost. Thankfully a very nice South African man asked if I needed help. I accepted gratefully and he showed me where to go.

    Of course the online flight does not have audio description. We'll have to work on that one, along with the captions. Some of the movies on the big international planes did have captions in several languages, including English for the Hearing Impaired, you will be happy to know.

    I decided not to carry a cane in the airport myself, although it would have helped with stairs and to let people know I don't see well. But I have read too many stories of TSA workers insisting blind travelers use a wheelchair to avoid liability issues, or taking the cane away inside the cabin, I figured it wasn't worth the trouble, and went incognito as usual.

    Thanks for the fun post, and opening yet another good discussion. :)


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