Flying High with Hearing Loss

Gael Hannan
October 25, 2022

Have you noticed how anxious people look in the airport? With looks ranging from mild frowns to serious panic, they navigate a busy airport full of people who look just like them. I’ve worn that look myself when traveling solo.

Why is this? In an article on airport anxiety, writer Jenny Bhatia lists common sources of worry such as not getting up on time, having proper travel documents, germs, announcements in other languages, security lines and simply watching anxious people rushing around.

People with hearing loss have additional challenges, such as the intense, unrelenting background noise and public announcements in any language. We suspect somebody’s shouting that our flight is about to leave without us

For years we’ve been begging for better signage throughout the airport that lets us read what’s being announced. But some of that problem is solved with today’s smartphone technology; I receive messages from my airline that it’s time to board or, more frequently, that the flight has been delayed. I am grateful for this because once, before the phone alerts were a thing, I arrived at the airport far too early. I got involved in a book, lost track of time and didn’t hear the public announcement calling for me, rather urgently. I eventually arrived at the gate in a panic, and had to endure withering looks as I boarded – the cause of the plane’s delayed departure.

But there is a sure-fire trick to flying with hearing loss. It’s us, the passengers who have it. For a trip with less stress, we need to self-identify and then follow up with what we need. Here’s a rough draft of what what I usually say:

(Showing my boarding pass) Hello! I have profound hearing loss and I don’t hear announcements, especially boarding announcements. Can you help me?”

Who can refuse that clear request for accommodation? The usual response is some variation on: “No problem, would you like to board early? (Do fish swim or birds fly?) Just sit over there and I’ll come and get you.”

I reply with gratitude and sit where indicated. Then, all sorts of fun things can happen. I used to gaze at that staffer like a laser beam, but I couldn’t keep it up and check my emails. I now trust that I won’t be forgotten. Someone always comes for me.

Sometimes, waving with a high arm as if I were a mile away.

Sometimes, with a wheelchair.

Sometimes, with an offer of a Braille card.

Sometimes, with a hand under my elbow to guide me down the ramp.

And sometimes with a deer-in-the-headlights look because they’re not sure if I can talk.

All of these have happened more than once throughout my solo travel career. While I’m grateful, I also gently try to dispel their myths about hearing loss: I’m not blind, I don’t use sign language, I can walk unassisted and I was an early talker.

On a recent trip, my flights had been booked for me and the airline had been notified of my deafness, as we should always do when booking our flights. I preboarded and a flight attendant escorted me to my seat and asked what my needs were. I explained that I don’t hear announcements – but wouldn’t it be nice if I could read them on the screen in front of me? But moving on, I’m not interested in our cruising altitude or the weather at destination – just tell me how to get the Wi-Fi, if there is turbulence ahead (or more serious issues) and I’ll see you at the other end. Thank you.

Travel is a pleasure, but there will always be some element of stress. I check for my passport a million times and I’m always a bit suspicious that somebody has forgotten to tell me something important. But that’s just who I am – a frequent traveler with hearing loss who has no intention of being left behind.


  1. Yes, Gael, I have done that as well! There have been times though, when a last minute gate change occurs and an announcement is made. Like you, I don’t hear it! The staff is hustling and bustling. Inevitably, they fail to change the gate # on the board, or they forget about me. I have missed flights. The good news is that we have choices in how we advocate for ourselves. That’s a great thing. Iusually go with the wheelchair because I have balance issues and I get overwhelmed by too much noise and bright lights. What would be great is to get a real time text of what is being announced! How cool would that be? Suzanne Picerno, Author, Eddie the Elephant’s Magical Ear

  2. in addition, closed captioning on the plane when watching movies is improving but many movies spoken in English do NOT have cc despite many complaints. Delta blames the movie industry on not always providing captions. Perhaps we need to lobby the movie industry harder rather than the airlines.
    Ella, a Delta Diamond frequent flier who loves the airport loop signs in many airports but not frequently encountered in the US. We need to catch up in the US.

  3. I love your article on airport travel. I feel so frustrated that I cannot understand the announcements . I will have to speak up when I check in at airport. Thank you.

  4. Sure can identify with everything you said, Gael! About 30-years ago, my plane ended up re-routing to another airport due to weather issues. I got off that plane oblivious – not realizing what had happened.

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