Changes in air travel communication could help those with hearing loss
It is no secret that air travel has become more and more unpleasant in recent years. Oversold flights, minimal food service and airlines' desire to squeeze more passengers in by eliminating legroom are just a few of the indignities travelers must suffer in order to get to their destinations. But for those with hearing loss, airplane travel can be particularly difficult. Hearing loss affects everything from pre-flight boarding to gate change announcements and in-flight communication, leading to frustration and misery.
Especially for those with hearing loss, we still have a long way to go until all passengers can travel with equal access to services. Fortunately, vocal advocates have targeted a few specific areas of air travel communication to make the expression “flying the friendly skies” more of a reality. Even better? You can help.
Induction loop systems
An increasing number of airports have installed induction loop systems, which consist of a loop of wire that produces an electromagnetic signal received directly by hearing aids. Induction loop systems allow hearing aid and cochlear implant users to hear more clearly despite the presence of background noise or poor acoustics. In order to be connected to the airport’s induction loop, you just need to switch your hearing aids to the “telecoil” or "T" setting. If you are not sure if your hearing aids have telecoils, ask your hearing healthcare provider.
The following airports have installed induction loop systems:
- Boston Logan International Airport
- Muskegon Airport
- Los Angeles International Airport
- Kalamazoo/Battle Creek airport
- Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport,
- Detroit Airport (Delta terminal)
- Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids
- South Bend International Airport
- Helsinki Airport (Finavia’s information desks)
- Ballina/Byron Gateway Airport (check-in area)
- Newcastle Airport
- Brisbane Airport
- Melbourne Airport
- Heathrow Airport
- Gatwick Airport
- Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam
What you can do: Check out the HLAA website for information about how you can become a part of their Get in the Hearing Loop campaign, and encourage your local airport to get on board.
You may have noticed that once you board a plane, those that are video-equipped feature captioned safety demonstrations. However, what you might not have noticed is that once the safety demonstration is over, so is the captioning. The lack of captioning leaves those with hearing loss at a distinct disadvantage. In 2009, the Department of Transportation ruled that all aircraft videos, DVDs and other audio-visual displays be captioned for safety and/or informational purposes. Despite the mandate, unscheduled audio announcements are frequently made by flight attendants or the pilot to announce connecting gate information or impending turbulence, and almost none of them are captioned.
And what about entertainment? If you think a long flight is uncomfortable and boring, just imagine taking that flight with no access to in-flight entertainment due to lack of captioning. With the exception of foreign flights which offer captioning to accommodate language differences, for those with hearing loss, lack of captioning is a reality on most flights.
There has been some progress, however. In 2012, in the midst of its merger with United Airlines, Continental Airlines became the first airline to offer closed captioning for live television on certain aircraft. Following the merger, United Airlines now offers closed-captioning on individual monitors via DIRECT TV on all channels.
What you can do: The Collaborative for Communication Access via Captioning (CCAC) is working with the Department of Transportation as well as the HLAA and is making great progress toward expanding captioning on airlines. Contact them via e-mail at CCACaptioning@gmail.com to join their advocacy team.
Passed by Congress in 1986, the Air Carrier Access Act has specific benefits for those with hearing loss. It states, in part:
- Information and reservations services must be accessible
- Information at airports must be accessible after self-identification as having hearing loss
- Television at airports must have captions turned on
- Communication on commercial aircraft must be effective after self-identification as having hearing loss
- Service animals are permitted
Thanks to the ACAA, you have rights that will ensure a smoother travel experience:
You have the right to indicate your need for special services when booking your flight, either online or over the phone. When given a list of options, select “hearing loss or impairment”. This will begin the process of alerting the airlines of your needs, both preflight and during the flight. It will not only be noted on the passenger manifest, but gate agents and flight attendants will be notified as well.
You have the right to request disability seating. This usually means close to the front of the aircraft. This seating allows you to pre-board as well as to see the flight attendants clearly so you are better able to understand them as they make in-flight announcements. Be aware that online booking sites might not mention that these seats are available, as the airlines would rather sell these seats at economy comfort prices; nevertheless be sure to ask. If the seats are available, they have to give them to you at no extra cost. Disability seats are intended for all disability groups, not just those with mobility issues.
You have the right to the same level of communication with airline staff as the other passengers. Once you have self-identified to the airline as having hearing loss, you can make certain requests in order to make sure you are aware of all important information. For example, you might want to ask to be approached directly with notification of pre-boarding, any in-flight safety announcements such as turbulence, notifications of gate changes or late arrivals.
What you can do: Before you fly, familiarize yourself with the benefits you are entitled to as a person with hearing loss. If you feel that an airline has violated any of the ACAA rules, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation using their online complaint form.
DOT Advisory Committee
The DOT has invited Lise Hamlin of the HLAA to be part of an advisory committee on accessible transportation, which among other topics will be addressing in-flight communication and entertainment. They have their work cut out for them, however, as the airline industry is already challenging the DOT’s rights to make any changes.
What you can do: HLAA advises you to file a complaint if you don’t get the access you need. Send complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's easy to be part of the conversation. With something as simple as an e-mail or phone call, you can help instigate the change necessary to bring equality in airline travel to those with hearing loss. And, if you haven't gotten help for your own hearing loss, proper treatment from a hearing care professional can make air travel and, indeed, everyday life easier and more pleasant for you and those close to you.