Chaos and Air Travel

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.

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10 thoughts on “Chaos and Air Travel

  1. Hi! I found your site on the HLAA website. I got to meet Denise at the convention last weekend. It was my first convention but I benefited from it so much that I am already making my plans to go to Reno next year! I have added your site to my Google Reader…I will be back to visit again! 🙂

  2. Hi Terry —
    Yes, I think that something is going on in the world of air travel . . . It does seem to be getting worse and worse. I made it to OK without incident . . . even w/ my luggage, but going home was a different story. To make a long story (somewhat) short, I didn’t realize what was happening (so as to ask to stay in OK and go out the next morning . . .) and boarded my plane for the first leg of my trip 4 hours late. When I finally got to Atlanta . . . of course all the flights — no matter what airline — to Asheville were gone for the day. Even though I originally had a 3+ hour layover there, THOSE planes were not running late. I got to have a little involuntary slumber party in the Atlanta airport . . . and in spite of that 9+ hour delay, my luggage still didn’t manage to get on the plane with me! Go figure. My suitcase did finally show up at my door late Tuesday afternoon . . . I am sure that if I had been traveling with my husband, he would have figured out all the details and realized what the long delay was going to cause . . .and we would have simply gone back to the hotel for the evening . . . IF they made annoucements about connecting flights and the opportunity to rebook, I didn’t hear/understand them . . . Doesn’t dampen my spirit for the convention, but what an adventure!

  3. Hi Terry,

    Sharing experiences like this makes one feel not so alone. My flight to Oklahoma was fine to Atlanta , then it became a bit scary.
    I always go to the desk where my flight number on paper says to go. I show this to the airline official and explain I am hard of hearing and would they please tell me if this has changed. ( I do check the incoming and outgoing flights on the big board first). All was well …for awhile.
    Then , the check in gate for boarding to OKC. changed…and I did managed to get that… because I sit there where the clerk can see me (so she remembers me and my hearing loss). I wear my pin that says I read lips etc. under my sweater/coat (to protect myself from those who need not know). But it helps so much because if I wear that, they believe me more! I am more visible to them and they respect that I share this need. However, they get so busy sometimes with incoming ,outgoing flights at the same gate ,they too can forget.
    In Oklahoma, I had a gate change and walked to the other end of the airport (thankfully, not large) . When I could walk no further. I asked a clerk where this flight and gate number was….(had it on paper). She was rude as could be and asked me a question I did not anticipate.”what airline was I going on”? Hey, I had the flight number and gate…I just did not realized I walked down to SouthWest Air.
    Mine was Delta.
    Rudeness was uncalled for as the place was NOT crowded. I managed to find the boarding gate and had an hour wait.
    For both hearing and hard of hearing, sight impaired people…,air travel is a challenge these days. My advice is to get there early enough to get lost and as far as changing planes, just be prepared mentally for a delay, change of boarding gate # and be patient. If sitting on a plane for hours at a time happens, I will however lose my patience. We did sit for while because of weather in Atlanta, and it was no air, no drinks other than water and a bit unnerving. Getting home safe was my goal.
    It is not happening just to the hard of hearing.it is happening to everyone…just hearing the changes makes it more difficult for us.
    Hmmm, a thought. We could make a visible statement by declaring we are “handicapped” and need a wheelchair to get to the next flight. Then the airline personel would be responsible for us getting to where we belong! Not nice, but if they can’t accommodate us , they have to physically take us to where we need to be! Then maybe some changes would be made!
    I hope going to Reno is an easy trip:)with better weather.Not something YOU can promise though:)
    PS. I did not promise this would be short:)

  4. Hi Terry and all reading,
    I like the story and the final Q you ask! How are we going to form one larger voice? We can all relate. In fact, I have started making noise at the bus stations and air terminals myself, when I am brave enough (alone); e.g. at the Boston Main Bus Terminal (next to South Station), I went into the Manager’s office last year to advise them to have better signing all around, and moving letters too! I use that bus station between Maine and Boston. He listened very politely and said everyone told him they had one of the best signing systems around. Not good enough for we hard of hearing and deafened I said. He promised to look into it and who knows. For another example, at Gatwick airport in London last year, I went out of my way to tell all the information desks I could find that we need a sign, someone who can speak to us with slow clear speech so that we can lipread; we need captioning of all the annoucements. I found one man who immediately started signing to me (sign language) and I told him, hello? that’s great that you speak in signs, yet we need the other sort of signs :-). And by the way, if you DO know signlanguage, why not a small SIGN at your desk saying so? Some shops in London now have the ear with the slash showing that they have a loop system installed near the cashier; that helps some of us too.
    My three cents today, thanks for you blogs! And what IS the answer? Your thought on how we join voices more and more?
    best,
    Lauren

  5. Visible Signs or Captions are vital to those who cannot hear well …like ramps are to those who cannot walk.
    Arlene Romoff and I shared this comment and we love the comparsion. We agree it should be used everytime we need access!
    Re: My previous response “It is not happening just to the hard of hearing….it is happening to everyone…just hearing the changes makes it more difficult for us.”
    I meant : Not hearing the changes at all is what makes it more difficult for us” even on a slow “normal day”.

  6. Well, my story to and from OKC by air is long and terrible… so I will not repeat it unless someone emails and asks me to tell it… let me just say that since I have experienced increased balance and mobility (speed walking) impairments, I began to ask for wheelchair accommodations two or three years ago. It was the best thing for me because I travel alone and usually have flight disaster stories. When I can travel by train, I do so. Making my reservations, I always admit to my hearing loss along with the need for a wheelchair. However, I often have to wait and wait for someone to come to take me to the next gate… but I always get to the correct gate even if it has been changed or they have to rush me through restricted areas to get there. Also I generously tip good people who get me around the airport.

    I used to feel guilty… but I know I have to look out for myself and I know my flying experiences would be even worse if I had not asked for wheelchair accommodations.

    Until the airports improve their public address systems and signage, I will have to continue to ask for wheelchair accommodations. Before I asked for this accommodation, I have been completely left behind in a boarding call waiting for the agent to come and inform me that my flight was boarding. I will not ever let that happen again.

  7. This is a true story…not meant to make fun of anyone who requests a wheelchair, but to be careful who is pushing you around!

    I offered my assistance to one in a wheelchair (a stranger) as she was having trouble balancing her purse/carry on and pushing the wheels. We were going to same gate/plane!

    Little did I know she was talking to me and telling me to “stop!”. I had passed the gate we were to board ….!! She could hear the announcement that gates had changed ,and I ,of course had no idea!

    I was doing ‘my best’ to help thinking she would eventually make a handsignal to stop! But her hands were full with her “stuff”.

    She realized then by my hearing impaired accent that I did not hear her when she said “here we were”.
    We managed to laugh at the situation

    Using whatever means needed to get where you are going is what we all should do until things change for the better.
    (Just don’t ask “me” to guide you:)

  8. Hi Terry –

    One thing people can do (if flying Southwest, but other airlines offer this service) is to sign up for flight announcements on the website. Your cellphone or PDA or smartphone will receive text messages on flight updates. I fly Southwest anywhere from 4-8 times a month and find this service a real benefit. I’m not sure if this service is limited to Rapid Rewards members or open to the public, but in any case, all you have to do is sign up for Rapid Rewards – there is no fee involved.

    Don’t forget that if you are hard of hearing or deaf, you can preboard on Southwest.

    Teresa Bankmeyer Burke

  9. I have been wearing hearing aids since the age of 40 (over 20 years now), and I am constantly frustrated at airports. I usually can’t hear a word they are saying, since the microphones sound really distorted to me. If they could simply hold up a sign that says “Flight 123 boarding at Gate B12,”, it would be very helpful. If I see the people in wheel chairs boarding, I usually walk up and say, “I wear hearing aids, and I can’t hear a word they are saying on the microphone.” They usually let me board.

    Once in the airplane, it is even worse. I usually can’t hear a word the pilot or flight attendant is saying. I hate movies in airplanes. With headphones, I can’t hear the movie. All is hear is the noise from the plane. Haven’t they ever heard of closed captioning?

    In case you think I am totally deaf, that is not the case at all. I sing in a choir and talk on the telephone just like any other person.

  10. Terry,

    I agree that air travel is particularly hectic and unfriendly for all travelors especially the hard-of-hearing or otherwise challenged. My theory for the changes in quality air travel come from the observation that air travel is now a casual means of transportation, sometimes even a more economical travel solution and so airlines are catering to that new mindset. They are losing sight of important factors in customer service. I think that consumers should make it known when they have had poor service. Our feedback is crucial!

    Thanks for all your great work Terry.

    Suzanne Yoder, Au.D.

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