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Mastering Air Travel as a Blind Person: Boarding

Usually, getting to your gate and boarding is pretty simple and uncomplicated. With rare exception, gate agents are helpful. If, however, there is a snag in the process – your flight is delayed or canceled, the gate is changed – what you thought was going to be simple now holds the potential for becoming far more complex and challenging. There are a few things you can do, however, to insure that you have as much control over the process as possible.

  • Get properly oriented. When you get to the gate, the first order of business is to get familiar with how the gate area is laid out. Be sure to ask at least these two questions: first, where is the podium and, second, where is the door to get to the plane?

The passenger assist person knows to notify the gate agent that you’re there and will need some assistance boarding. If everything goes smoothly, which it generally does, there’s no problem. If, however, your flight is delayed or, especially, if it’s canceled, the gate agent is likely to be swamped by other passengers competing for their attention and you may be forgotten in the ensuing pandemonium. You will need to be able to walk over, like everybody else, to see how your plans have been influenced and what you need to do.  For this reason, I always try to be seated close to the podium.

More often than not, either the gate agent or a customer service representative will offer to assist you getting on the plane when the flight is called. Sometimes this doesn’t happen, in which case you’ll need to have at least a general idea where the door to the jet bridge is located.

  • Checking-in with the gate agent. Some passenger assist people will want to take your boarding pass and actually check you in with the gate agent themselves. While it’s not the end of the world if they’re insistent, I prefer to do this myself. This way, I’m certain as to what the agent has been told and what they have said in turn. In addition, if problems develop, the agent is more likely to think of me as a real person and not the blind guy in 8-c.
  • If you have a dog. This may just be my hang-up, but I never notify the airlines ahead of time that I will be traveling with a dog. It seems that, every time I do, they want us to be in the bulkhead which, at least in most airplanes, is the absolutely worst place for a dog. If, on the other hand, I simply arrive at the gate with a dog and explain the situation, the agent is more than willing to seat us in a non-bulkhead seat.
  • Preboarding. I know that there are some blind people who object to the Preboarding process, believing it is an unnecessary and unwanted special accommodation. Because three members of my family have worked for the airlines, two of them as flight attendants, I may look at this a bit differently. The airlines are concerned with loading planes as quickly as possible. It’s for this reason, I suspect, that Preboarding is for “anyone who needs a little more time.” While every flight has some passengers who seemingly board in slow motion, I know that, having a dog, it will take a few more seconds to get situated and that we’ll be blocking the aisle while getting seated. I wouldn’t second-guess someone else’s decision not to preboard. It’s just that I want to take the opportunity to do what I can to expedite the process.

One final note: If a jet bridge is not provided, you will have to cross the tarmac with the passenger assist person to get on the plane. In theory, this should be simple, except that the surrounding noise is likely to be so loud that you’ll struggle to hear any directions they may have. At this point, all bets are off. It’s been my experience that, a majority of the time, the assist person is at a loss as to how to assist without you being able to hear them – not an unreasonable point of view. It’s not much consolation, but all I can say is that, while this is extremely aggravating, you will get to the stairs and on the plane. You’re almost certain to be more than a little frustrated as you take your seat, however.

Now that you’ve learned the basics of air travel as a blind person, you’re ready for the advanced course: transferring and making connections.

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You may also enjoy:
Mastering Air Travel – Packing
Mastering Air Travel – Checking-in
Mastering Air Travel – Security

Coming soon:
Mastering Air Travel – Transferring
Mastering Air Travel – The Flight

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