Travel Alert: What Passengers with Hearing Loss Really Need

Gael Hannan
March 29, 2016

(Hint: It’s not a wheelchair.)


I travel frequently for pleasure and business. My severe hearing loss poses no problem when I’m traveling with family or friends, who take over the most crucial communication chores. I depend on them to catch unexpected gate changes, pilot announcements about engine failure, and what train station we’re coming into—hopefully not the one after our destination. These tasks are simple for the hearing folks but heavy-duty for the solo traveler with hearing loss. I do my job and let the airlines know my needs, but the help I get is a curiously mixed bag.

So, here’s a shout out to all airlines and their staff:


Meeting the Needs of Passengers With Hearing Loss


  • We are more anxious than the average flyer—for good reason. We’ve panicked over last minute gate changes that we didn’t hear announced. We’ve missed you calling our name for seat changes or upgrades. Boarding procedures are not standard, so don’t assume we know what to do in any given airport. Actually, don’t assume anything about us because, beyond our common hearing issues, we’re as individual as snowflakes.


  • Pre-boarding is a nice gesture, which I accept when it’s offered after disclosing my hearing loss. But technically it’s not necessary, as long as you remember to get my attention when my row or group is boarding. On second thought, go ahead and pre-board me. I can help with pushing any wheelchair-users.


  • WE, however, don’t require wheelchairs—unless we also have a mobility challenge. We don’t need to be escorted by the elbow down to the plane, or handed off to the flight attendant with whispered instructions that she’syou know, DEAF. And we definitely don’t need safety announcements on a Braille card. I don’t make this stuff up. When I disembarked from a flight last week, an airline employee was waiting outside the plane door, holding a sign with my name on it—and a wheelchair. I declined her offer, but she followed me into the airport because she had been tasked with escorting me to my next gate. Sigh. But I insisted on walking.


  • PA announcements are Public Enemy #3, right behind Background Noise and People Who Don’t Face Us when they speak. While the majority of us hear that an announcement is being made, we have no idea what you’re actually saying. But because we’re paranoid, we suspect the announcement may have something to do with us—so we come up and ask, once again, what you just said.  Better signage in the airport (and all terminals) would keep us informed and less stressed.


  • Some airline online checking procedures allow us to indicate our hearing loss. But if I check this off, I expect the information to show up somewhere in your system when I get to the airport, rather than me relaying it to every employee along the route. When I check in, this should show up on your computer, “Passenger has hearing loss.” Then, all you do is look up, face me, and speak. (Please don’t look nervous, I speak your language.)


  • More on the language thing. If “DEAF/HARD OF HEARING” shows up on the system, don’t assume I use sign language. Especially if I’ve said—with my voice—hello or good morning. The vast majority of us use a spoken language, rather than a signed language. Just ask, “How best can we help you regarding your hearing loss.”  Then we’ll let you know that we need visual notice for boarding and personal delivery of in flight announcements. “Ms. Hannan, we’re experiencing mechanical difficulties and will be landing in a farmer’s field in Iowa.  Brace yourself and have a nice flight.”


  • Captioned in-flight entertainment is a long overdue airline gift to people with hearing loss. We need the same level of customer service as wheelchair-users and those with diet restrictions. Some safety announcements are conveyed by captioned video—so why not the movies? If I don’t have appropriate headphones (see following point), I have to watch foreign films with English subtitles, which are enjoyable but—y’know?—I’d like to have the same choices as everyone else.


  • Earbuds don’t work with our hearing aids or cochlear implants. Sometimes we forget to bring our own ear-covering headphones, so please have a few pairs of the old kind on hand for people with different listening needs.


  • People with hearing loss can’t sit in the exit rows and that’s just fine with me—too dangerous in an emergency—although that extra leg room sure looks pretty. If you know we have hearing loss, don’t let us sit there. Just because we have a disability or impairment, doesn’t mean that we’re incapable of cheating.


  • I do not need to wait until everyone else gets off the plane before disembarking. Sound silly? I used to think so too, until I was offered this option on two recent flights.



We’re not asking for perks; we just don’t consider accommodating our hearing loss to be special treatment. But for our safety and comfort, we need to know what’s being said and to be able to enjoy the flight we just paid a lot of money for.


Thanks for listening—I look forward to my next flight with you!


Photo: Bill Frymire

  1. This is so long overdue. I hope some of the airlines read this. They really do not know what to do with us! They just need some training and perhaps this article would be a good place to start. Well done.

    1. Thank you Lauren…please share as much as possible. I have sent to several airlines.

  2. One big problem, hard of hearing are very shy and are reluctant to draw attention to many cases they do not realise how much help,and how keen others are to offer it, is available because they don’t tell. Men are the worst offenders.

    1. Thomas, I agree and I advocate strongly – both in my Better Hearing Consumer column and in my book, The Way I Hear It – for people with hearing loss to learn about their needs and their right to ask for accommodation!

  3. The lack of closed captioning on the movies is mind-boggling because it is ubiquitous everywhere but airplanes. Very frustrating. This whole article was spot-on. Thanks Gael

  4. The Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and most of its chapters have been advocating for this for years, but we can’t hear it too much from folks like you, Gael, and you, Lauren. It was after the HLAA Convention in Reno in 2007 in the airport, when I’d been a member for just over two years, that I bit the bullet and walked up to the attendant (bravely) telling her I was hard of hearing, and asking if I could sit near the front. She was only too happy to tell me where to stand in order to do that. It’s only the first time that it’s hard to say. It gets easier all the time. Thank you all for your advocacy.

  5. Thanks for this. Getting on the plane and in a seat is 90% of the problem. I never thought of the pre-boarding thing, but that’s a good idea. Change of gate, time or anything else is the big nightmare.

  6. I love articles like this, they remind me of why I put up with the embarrassment of identifying and going through it 5 times for each flight. Because I’m not alone and if I can do it enough, it will help others!

    My tips:
    1. Identify when you book your ticket
    2. Call a few days before, identify again, and ask for a seat in the aisle and close up so you can see the attendant (they do have special sets for disability patients and with a hearing loss, you do qualify, for FREE)
    3. Upon arrival at the gate, go up and tell them you are here, remind them again of your needs (I ask for pre-boarding and someone telling me if they change gates or delay)
    4. Upon embarking on the plane, identify to the flight attendants and tell them what you need (me: “I’ve flown a lot, I just need to know if there is a problem, thank you”) – also use this time to ask about meal service options (if you know that will be offered)

    Bonus: Download an app like FlightAware to track your flight without help from other people – they will notify you of gate changes and delays!

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