Flying is scary for anyone. Even if the thought of relying on complete strangers to ferry you through the sky doesn’t make you a little nervous (I can say it’s never bothered me), airports are intimidating enough for even the most seasoned travelers. Some airports are massive enough to have train systems and moving sidewalks. If you plan to fly internationally, you have to deal with customs and security and all the rest of it. Sighted people can see where they’re going and read detailed maps, but many of them still hate and fear the experience. Given the anxiety this process elicits in sighted people, flying on my own for the first time put a great many butterflies in my stomach…and I can assure you that they were not flying in formation.
I’m rather prone to ranting on this blog, but today I get to rave a little instead. I’ve flown independently several times now (my long-distance relationship forced me to get over my anxieties real quick) and each time has been a breeze. You see, if you have a disability that can make it difficult for you to navigate the airport, you can ask for assistance when you book your flight. Each time I flew, I was greeted by a security agent at the check-in desk, and led through security, then to my gate, then onto the plane before regular passengers boarded. I didn’t have to worry about finding the right gate, or getting onto the plane in time, or even finding my seat and stowing my luggage. Once I boarded the plane, the flight attendants showed me where the emergency exits and bathrooms were located. WestJet, in particular, is always quick to provide you with a brailled copy of the safety information so that you can be given the same information as everyone else. They even showed me where the call button was in case I needed anything during the flight. Because I am absurdly averse to inconveniencing people, I never used it, but at least I knew it was there.
When we landed, a flight attendant escorted me off the plane and handed me to an airport employee who helped me find my luggage and either book a shuttle home or wait for people at the arrivals gate. It was the easiest and most worry-free experience I could possibly have imagined. Travel is stressful enough without having to agonize over finding your way around an unfamiliar place where time is of the essence.
As with anything else, there are a few snags. Guide dog handlers often run into situations where there isn’t much room on the plane for the dog. Some airlines are unwilling to allow the dog onto the plane, even though they are required to do so by law. Still others will insist that blind passengers pay for an extra seat if they want to bring a guide dog along. Even if you’re a cane traveler, you can run into a few issues. More than once, I’ve been offered a wheelchair to carry me through the airport, despite the fact that my legs work just fine, thank you very much. Sometimes they do this because they’re not sure what would be best, but other times they offer this because they can’t be bothered trying to guide me. I have been lucky: I have declined the wheelchair each time and that has been honoured; some are told that they must use the wheelchair if they want assistance. Opinions will vary on this one, but I consider it just a wee bit degrading to be told I am not permitted to walk when I am perfectly capable of doing so.
One of the most disconcerting issues is when you get stuck with a customer service agent who wants very little to do with you. Last week, during a layover in Seattle, my fiancé and I (also blind) were guided by a woman who seemed intent upon getting us to our gate and getting rid of us as quickly as she could. Perhaps she was short on time, or just having a bad day, but her attitude was barely courteous. This stood in sharp contrast to the friendly and solicitous manner of most of the airport employees I have dealt with in the past. I am usually blown away by their sincere concern for my comfort. It’s a kindness rarely found and truly appreciated.
All things considered, air travel is a piece of cake compared to, say, bus travel. When describing the assistance I receive to sighted people, I have seen them express jealousy that they, too, can’t request to be guided step by step through the airport. Getting lost and confused is practically part of the air travel culture—if it can be said to have a culture at all—and avoiding this altogether is a privilege to be treasured.