The Hearing Loss Association participated in the US Department of Transportations’ (DOT) forum on the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), “Working Together to Improve Air Travel for Passengers with Disabilities” January 11, 2011. We joined members of the disability community, the domestic and foreign airline representatives, and staff from DOT, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the US Department of Justice. In short, the room was filled with people interested in access to air travel for people with disabilities taking time out of their busy schedules for the two-day forum.
HLAA had been asked by DOT to join in a panel discussion of access issues for people with different disabilities. In addition to HLAA, representatives from the Association of Blind Citizens, the Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Albert Einstein Medical Center provided information on air access issues.
It’s true that people with hearing loss have seen some improvements over the last few years. Some airlines are providing more visual display of information at the gate. In newer planes, we are beginning to see visual display showing not only seat belt use, but when to shut down your electronics. That’s great – it takes the guesswork out of figuring out when to shut off that cell phone. Not only that, we are beginning to see on some International flights seat-back access to movies with a choice of captioning for some airlines (yea, British Airways!) And of course when emergency information is provided on a video, that video is required to be captioned. So, yes, there is some improved access for people with hearing loss.
But we still have a long way to go. HLAA strongly objects to rules that require self-identification of individuals with hearing loss at every point in the process. We object to self identification not only because it puts the onus on the individual to declare their hearing loss (will that businessman who’s been hiding his hearing loss for years really self-identify?), but because it doesn’t work. I have identified myself on numerous flights and at the gates (I have yet to find anyone to self-identify to at the baggage carrousel). Not once has staff come to me to ensure I understood announcements at the gate. Not once on the flight has each and every announcement been made accessible to me. And once, when I boarded and requested that announcements be made accessible to me, a very nice and very concerned flight attendant returned with a copy of the flight emergency information – in Braille.
OK, so what do we want? HLAA’s position is that all audible announcements should be accessible via text – and not just canned announcements, but live announcements – at the gate, on the aircraft, and at the baggage area. In areas that can be looped, looping should be provided. In addition, when an airline provides videos, there should be an option to caption those videos. We know it can be done. The technology is there. It’s time for the air carriers to step up to the plate.
We also believe that better and more on-point training should be provided to airline staff. We have received reports that current training does a good job of informing staff about the law, but does less well letting them know how to interact with people with different disabilities. We can see that. Air carriers need to do better to ensure that everyone gets the training they need to provide better access to people with disabilities.
At DOT’s forum, it was emphasized that consumers need to send complaints in – or things won’t change. DOT says they receive very few complaints from people with hearing loss. You and I may talk about it, but we aren’t sending our complaints to the people who need to hear about it. We must take responsibility ourselves and file those complaints. To let DOT and the airlines how they can do better, you need to let them know what happened. But you need to be very clear about your complaint.
Air travel complaints: Be specific!
Your contact information, including either email address or phone
Flight Itinerary (destination cities and flight number)
Description of the problem
For example: Don’t say:
Your lousy airline made my trip miserable. I’ll never fly Amanda Airlines again!
Do say: On January 11, 2011, I told Amanda Airlines personnel at the gate that I would not be able to hear any announcements. They told me they didn’t have time to worry about me and I should ask another passenger to alert me when it was time to board. I did not feel comfortable asking a stranger to help me. What I did do was stand next to the boarding area podium for 20 minutes, watching the gate personnel and the passengers to be sure I did not miss my flight. When I thought I understood it was time to board and got in line, one of the gate staff yelled at me for boarding early, humiliating me in front of the other passengers. Also, when was finally on board comfortably settled into my seat with my hearing dog tucked under the seat in front of me, a flight attendant told me I must move to the bulkhead. Now, I thought it was OK for me to sit anywhere in the airplane with my service animal, except right next to the emergency exit. When I said that to the flight attendant she insisted that I must move now or I would be escorted off the plane. Because I simply wanted to get to my destination without any further problems, I did move to the bulkhead, but it was not comfortable for me or my service dog. Please let me know what Amanda Airlines will do in response to this complaint.
Send in complaints in right away
If you put it off, you could forget the details – and so could they. Make notes on the flight, and put a letter together and send it in as soon as possible. You can contact the airline directly, or fill out the form on the DOT website: http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/escomplaint/es.cfm
You can expect to receive a reply from the Airline. The reply should respond to all your concerns, not just one, and let you know whether they agree or disagree that their staff was at fault, and direct you to the DOT if you wish to pursue it further. If you received a form letter, the airline did not do the right thing. Complain again.
DOT investigates and keeps track of complaints. All, DOT and the airline industry, take these complaints very seriously. So, our advice to you: send in your written complaints. Your complaints could help improve access to airlines.
For more information about filing complaints with the DOT, visit http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/ACAAcomplaint.htm