Traveling Trials and Tribulations

Since I’m leaving for Canada tomorrow, I thought I would devote today’s entry to the issues I face when traveling–both as a blind person,and as a blind person with a guide dog. There was a time (back in my corporate days) when I traveled much more than I do now, but I still fly frequently enough that I would view it to be a considerable aspect of my lifestyle.

I think that, particularly in the post 9-11 era, travel has become more and more of a challenge for me. Some of my biggest struggles have been around airport security, layovers, and getting assistance when in strange airports.

Sure, there are other inconveniences (like the no liquids that don’t fit into a Ziploc bag thing). (How happy must Ziploc be with this latest security requirement, with their products in every airport around the country?) I’m not making a jab at Ziploc here. In fact, I’m a huge fan–having obsessive compulsive tendencies when it comes to organization.

But the liquids rule is something that everyone has to deal with–blind or not. Oh, I know sighted folk also have to navigate security checkpoints, but I think the experience takes on a whole different meaning when you’re doing it with a dog. Even though it has been nearly 6 years since 9-11 (wow, how time flies), I am still amazed at the number of airport personnel who don’t appear to know the laws regarding service animals. I know some of it isn’t their fault. I mean, the TSA changes procedures like most people change underwear. Still, it boggles my mind that my dog and I are treated differently in almost every airport we visit.

Sometimes the TSA employees at the security checkpoint hardly look at my dog. (This made more sense to me when I worked a GSD, because they can seem a bit more intimidating. However, I am now working a Golden, who looks more like a guide Gund than a guide dog.) At other times the search of my dog is very thorough: with the individual checking inside his harness pouch and under his harness sign, and sliding their hands between the harness straps and his body. Even though it takes longer, I actually prefer this type of search. It makes me feel safer somehow, because I am more confident that all of the other passengers in the airport are experiencing the same type of scrutiny.

Still, I have had other things happen to me and my dog that are just plain odd. I was in one airport, and had implemented the procedure I typically use to get my dog and I through security checkpoints. (I place him in a down-stay, walk through the tunnel with the sensors in it so the agent can hear whether or not I make the metal detector go off, and then I call my dog through.) Of course the metal in his harness always activates the alarm, but usually the agent only searches him, since they’ve already seen me walk through without incident. In this case, the woman on duty told me that they would have to examine us both. When I asked why, she told me that because I had touched the dog, he had now “contaminated” me. I looked at her incredulously and said. “I know I can’t legally refuse a search, so I want to make it clear that that isn’t what I’m doing, but I just want to tell you that that is one of the stupidest rules I’ve ever heard.” She didn’t search me.

Another time, I was about to walk through the metal detector when an agent approached me and said. “It will be easier if I just take your dog from you.”

I replied that what he was proposing wasn’t legal, and that my dog would be staying with me.

He actually responded. “I know it isn’t legal, but if you choose to give him to me than it’s all right.”

I told him emphatically that I didn’t choose to turn over my dog. At that point, a supervisor rushed over. Perhaps he noticed the flashing neon “LAW SUIT WAITING TO HAPPEN” sign above the other guy’s head.

Layovers are also difficult–both because of the increasing lack of assistance being provided in airports, and because of the whole relieving the dog problem. I now try to avoid layovers at all cost. If I can get from one place to another on only one flight, the chances are that much smaller that I won’t end up stranded or delayed for hours. Several years ago (shortly after 9-11), I had a layover in Chicago on my way from Hartford to L.A. When I got off the plane, I explained that my dog would need to go to the bathroom. At first they told me that wouldn’t be possible. When I explained that that wasn’t an acceptable answer, and asked for the location of the nearest potted plant, they said that one of their employees would take the dog out onto the runway to pee. Now, those of you who use dogs know how likely it is that a dog is going to go to the bathroom–on a concrete surface that smells like jet fuel, with engines screaming near-by and mechanics and baggage handlers running around–without you being present. I initially said that even though I didn’t think it would work, I would be willing to try this proposed solution, as long as I could accompany the dog outside. They responded that I couldn’t come along, because it was a “secure” area. At that point, I became so exasperated that I said. “I’m blind, for God’s sake. What am I going to do, run from you?” A semblance of sense (or maybe it was shock) finally prevailed, and I was able to convince them that the dog and I should stay together. Thankfully they then decided that neither of us should be allowed on the runway, and that it would be better to take us to the arrivals area, where there happened to be a patch of grass. I was able to avoid having to wait in the extremely long security line again by leaving my carry on bag with the security supervisor. This meant that when we returned, they only had to swipe a wand over me and my dog before we were allowed back into the gate area.

The final issue I mentioned above is the problem of getting assistance when in strange airports. More and more of late, I have found myself relying on the kindness of fellow passengers, or my own exploratory skills, rather than waiting the requisit 45 minutes for an employee to show up (if they show up at all). And, if they do show up, I find that it is becoming more and more likely that they are terrified of my dog to the point that they are unable to function, that they expect me to ride in a wheelchair, that they already have a whole gaggle of other passengers (either minors or people with various disabilities) with them, or that they don’t have the faintest idea how to interact with someone who is blind. I actually had a North West employee in the Minneapolis airport tell me that they “didn’t have to help people with disabilities; they only had to help children.” Did I mention the flashing neon “LAW SUIT WAITING TO HAPPEN” sign? I asked her if she had ever heard of this little piece of federal legislation called the Americans with Disabilities Act.

I don’t know what the solutions to these problems are. Obviously better training for both TSA and airline employees comes to mind. You know, the basics, like: address the person rather than the people around them if you want to know what they need and where they are going, and assign someone else to assist a dog user if all you can do is stand there and shriek. Perhaps we need to install talking signs in airports that direct people toward major areas, like baggage claim, ground transportation, and particular gates. Perhaps someone needs to design some sort of GPS-type system that works indoors. Perhaps we need to coordinate our efforts so that several of us all show up at an airport at the same time, just to freak out the airport employees (a vengeful thought, I know, but entertaining none the less).

In the meantime, I have come to view the process of traveling independently as an extreme sport, and have learned to expect a total lack of competence and assistance from the majority of airport employees. That way, when things go smoothly, or when I meet someone who actually knows how to help me effectively, I am pleasantly surprised, and very, very appreciative.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

4 thoughts on “Traveling Trials and Tribulations”

  1. Yes, I agree, traveling when one has a disability is often an extreme sport. As a wheelchair user, I have had to deal with the hassles of flying as well and one experience in particular, with a certain French airline, was a real nightmare. And I doubt things will get better.

  2. Howdy comrades!
    Bone Voyage has become an oxymoron when it comes to air travel and persons with disabilities. I recall returning to Austin from Mobile on September 10th, 2001, and I had no problems with airport staff or Delta Airlines. The cockpit door wasn’t closed and the co-pilot kibitzed with those of us in the first class cabin, joking about getting priority when it came to the coffee. The terrorists on 911 changed all that, even for those of us who have the means to fly first class. The most recent time I flew Delta, I had to practically disrobe before boarding, and when I tapped into the cockpit door with my cane on the way to the restroom, a gentlemen who was doubtless an air marshal blew his cover by freaking out. I may be a revolutionary, but I’m not crazy enough to sacrifice my life along with scores of innocent sighted folks. Besides, I hadn’t been served lunch yet! Please keep this comment a secret from the Comrade Mother. She becomes irascible when I spend Party funds to fly first class.
    Chairman Mal
    Power to the Peeps!

  3. One initial reaction I have in reading this is to think thank god I use a cane instead of a dog. The world and airports are probably for the most part not really set up for dogs, especially to handle the issue of taking a dog out during a flight connection. Of course airports could set up relief areas, and maybe one has, but I don’t think this is common.

    Also for the airlines, the applicable regulation is The Air Carrier Access Act or ACAA. The regulation implimenting the ACAA is called 14 CFR Part 382. If you search for that on google you will be able to find it. I am pretty sure there is a section covering service animals in Part 382. The ACAA is to the airlines what the ADA is to other businesses. Essentially though if you have a problem out there you can always ask for what they call a complaint resolution official. That person is supposed to be able to help you with your ACAA related problem. That person also can, but is not required too, compensate you for your inconvenience e.g. by upgrading you to first class. Many CRO’s though have fallen out of training probably because a lot of people with disabilities don’t fly very often, and even fewer ask for a CRO or even know what a CRO is.

    I travel a lot, and typically don’t request “special assistance” when I change planes. I in fact make it a point to often tell the ticket and gate agent that I don’t want any kind of notation in my record that I am blind. The lingo you can use is that you “don’t want an SSR in your PNR.” An SSR is a special service request, and your PNR is your passenger name record for a single reservation.

    I don’t think that getting from one gate to another is typically very difficult especially if you don’t have to exit security and go back in. People often say they wait 20-45 minutes for someone to come and help them, but in that time I am confident that you could have probably gotten where you were going at least 8 out of 10 times just using your cane or dog and travel skills. There is nothing wrong with asking for directions along the way. If blind people can cross streets et al there is no reason blind people generally cannot navigate in an airport without someone taking us and watching us evry place we go. In the 20-45 minutes you wait for someone to help you, I bet you 6 out of 10 times you could not only get to the next gate but even get a cup of coffee or check your email or voicemail.

    IMHO it is much more challenging to get off the subway at some place you have not been and find a new place, than it is to say go from gate B1 to c20 at Chicago O’Hare, or gate A2 to D25 at Atlanta. I don’t know, and I’m not saying you in particular, why blind people in general have this idea that either they can’t or that it is so difficult to make these flight connections without a personal assistant. I find that people who are blind who are otherwise good at travel techniques, have this apparent phobia or whatever it is about navigating around airports. I don’t understand this. Its also easier to navigate an airport than say a shopping mall.

    I would say in contrast the biggest problem I have had in being a frequent flyer since 1989 is people hovering around you, or thinking you can’t do the simplest things or walk around in an airport. I think it has gotten somewhat better since 1989, but still there are issues out there as you point out.

    I am fortunate also that I often fly on the same routes, so most of the gate agents know me and now they don’t even ask me anything “special” when I get on the plane. Also a few of the gate agents are proactive and they tell the flight attendant that I am a frequent flyer, etc. again so that the flight attendants don’t ask me if I am ok doing evry little thing.

    But as I say we’re not there yet. I still think to myself that it is good when I am able to for example go and board the plane, and I don’t get the “are you ok walking down the jetway,” but perhaps instead just get “thanks,”
    or “enjoy your flight,” or “good to seeyou again.”

    Also a real benchmark is what does the flight attendant say when you get off. Do they say thank you or goodbye like for anyone else, or do they say “watch your step” or “are you ok.” Another benchmark for me is how does the flight attendant handle it when I get on the plane.

    Here also is an article I wrote some years back documenting my experiences with JetBlue and at the time Delta’s Song. Look for the Travel article in the link below. While some data is out of date, the travel experience aspect of it is still there:
    In the article I document my experience flying from Boston to Orlando on JetBlue, and then Orlando to Boston on Delta Song.

  4. I have flown places many times, mostly with my family. But I did have one experience of flying alone and it was most pleasant. This was back in the spring of ’96. My parents had booked me on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Seattle, where my mom’s brother lives. The airport personnel as well as the flight personnel were very helpful and courteous. When I got on the plane in Chicago, the head flight attendant welcomed me aboard and walked me to my seat, and then she was off to perform her other duties and two trainee flight attendants came. They helped me stow my things in the proper place, and they then gave me the briefing that was required. When breakfast was served, they came and helped me out too. Once at Seatac Airport, they helped me off the plane and we looked around for my uncle. He had been paged over the loudspeaker a few minutes prior to my arrival, and there he was, sitting on a bench waiting for me. The trip back home was just as pleasant. I’ve always been a cane user but my roommate tells me that he has had no problems flying with his guide dog.

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