Mastering Air Travel As a Blind Person: Transferring and Making Connections
When transferring between flights, most people simply pick up their luggage when exiting the plane, check for the gate number of their connecting flight, perhaps stop off at the restroom or get something to eat, walk to the gate area of their connection, and board when the flight is called. If you’re blind and working with a customer service representative, things may go this smoothly, and often do, but you shouldn’t assume that it will. If you fly with any frequency, you’re almost guaranteed to have more, and more horrendous, stories about your air travel experiences than sighted friends and family.
In writing about this phase of your trip, there are enumerable stories I could share about the truly wonderful experiences I’ve had over the years with airport personnel, but I don’t want to gloss over some of the amazingly awful things that have also happened and how you can, hopefully, minimize the likelihood of them occurring to you.
- Exiting on the tarmac. While walking across the tarmac to board can be challenging, exiting a plane to go inside the terminal can be worse. I’m not sure what goes on behind the scene, but it seems that the personnel at some airports designated to assist with this have less training than passenger assist people working inside. Remember, you have just walked down the stairs to the tarmac and now can hear virtually nothing because of the collective roar of numerous jet engines. In the worst case, the person assisting you will grab your luggage, whether you want them to or not, without giving you indication what they plan to do. Usually, you’ll just be walking inside, but, on occasion, they will be taking you to some vehicle parked, somewhere on the tarmac, in order to transport you somewhere else. It’s more than a little disconcerting to be walking along, assuming you’re going into the terminal, and then suddenly, without warning, find that you’re being shoved into some vehicle. When this happens, the assist person may yell over the background noise something like, “Here’s the van!” At this point, it’s up to you to guess whether you need to duck or look for stairs since you know your assist is of minimal help in getting you oriented.
I remember, some years ago, being met in Atlanta by someone who announced into his walkie-talkie, “I got a blind going to Knoxville.” Not a good sign. It only got worse when he yelled into my ear, “Here’s the van” and, before giving me a chance to react, shoved me into the back seat, slamming my head into the roof of the car. The television ad used to promise “friendly skies” but never said anything about the ground.
If there’s something that can prevent a situation like this, I don’t know what it is. Beauty may be skin deep, but, unfortunately, stupid goes all the way to the bone.
- Establish a personal connection. Once you’re inside and have met the person who is to assist you to your gate, work to establish a personal connection. I’m convinced that, when you can do this, good assist people become even better and even poor assist people work a little harder to help. Of course, sometimes this isn’t possible. The assist may just be having a bad day and isn’t in the mood to talk. Maybe they flunked the class in personality. In any event, make an effort to connect with them.
My favorite icebreakers for assist people that don’t seem to be very talkative are:
Do you have any idea how far you walk a day in your job and
How long did it take you to learn your way around this airport?
If they’re sending off “I don’t want to talk” signals, I’ll certainly honor that, however.
Generally, you’ll go “sighted guide,” but assist personnel in some airports are fairly insistent about wanting to put you in a wheelchair. This typically happens because tips from people who use the chairs make up a significant portion of the assist’s income and they are therefore reluctant to abandon the chair. I explain that I’ve been sitting on the plane and would really like to walk. In which case, the assist accompanies me while pushing an empty chair, and both of us have our needs met.
- Communication skills. Anyone who has ever struggled with customer support on the phone has a rough idea of what’s involved here. The only difference is that your personal safety is on the line in the airport. Being run face first into a medal door just isn’t the same as trying to explain a computer problem. English doesn’t have to be a second language for this to happen. Unfortunately, if there’s a good solution, I haven’t learned it in forty years of plane travel.
- Plan for personal needs. Walking from one gate to another is an excellent opportunity to stop for food, drink, or a restroom. If your connecting flight is delayed significantly or, even worse, canceled, you may regret passing up the opportunity when you had it. Once you’re at the gate, you’re likely going to have a difficult time finding anyone to help with these things.
At its worst, there will be times you will be treated like luggage, simply an object to be moved from one point to another. At its best, you’ll be treated the way that most other passengers wish they could be treated. Sometimes, what you do won’t have much to do with what happens, but, on most trips, your behavior can contribute to a more positive outcome.
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Mastering Air Travel – The Flight