Is it my imagination, or is air travel becoming more of a hassle than ever before? Did people used to get stuck out on the tarmac in crowded planes without working air conditioning? I also wonder if airlines think that not giving bad information is preferred to leaving people in the dark for hours when there are delays and cancellations.
This spring, I was at my gate for a connecting American Airlines flight through Charlotte. When the time for departure came and went I found a gate agent (not all that easy to do) and asked when the plane was leaving. She looked the flight up on her computer and said it had been canceled. “Go over there to customer service,” she said as she pointed to some vague area in the terminal. I eventually made it to my destination, but my baggage did not.
Last week, while going to the Hearing Loss Association’s Convention, my wife Denise, her hearing assistance dog Chloe, and I made our way to BWI for a flight via Southwest Airlines. Usually, I fly Southwest because it is generally a hassle free experience. I do not particularly like the cattle corrals for boarding, but if you check in the night before and arrive before dawn, you can usually get a pretty decent seat.
We arrived to find a crowded terminal, people camped out on the floors, and frantic looking gate agents who just wanted to go home. As we stood around at the first gate, a muffled announcement was made about a flight being switched from this gate to another gate. The people lining up at this gate were going to Buffalo. I could not understand most of the announcement, but heard our flight number and gate number, and knew it was time to move. I told Denise “We’re changing gates.” She said, “How do you know” and I explained there was an announcement. Even with her
cochlear implant, she did not even know an announcement was being made.
Soon we found ourselves in the right gate area, for now. 15 minutes before boarding, I heard an announcement that our plane would be boarding at yet another gate. Thankfully, it was an adjoining gate and we only had to walk a few feet.
Several questions come to mind with this latest experience. First of all, where would Denise be if she were traveling alone? As someone with normal hearing, I struggled to figure out what was going on. The announcements in the terminal and in the plane were muffled, low volume, and almost impossible to understand for anyone. Visual alerting? Try plastic letters slid into a board at the gate. Wasn’t this the same system being used in the 1930’s? Do we not have nice crystal displays and computers connecting wirelessly?
I am sure Denise would have missed the plane if she were traveling alone. Gate agents were swamped and she would not have gotten to one of them in time. In fact, she would probably have been in line to go to Buffalo. When she handed her boarding pass to the gate agent she would have been told she was in the wrong line. Then what would have happened?
The bottom line question is how do we advocate to get visual information in terminals and planes? This is not just for people who do not hear well, this will benefit everyone. We have made some sporadic progress, but there is much to be done.