Airlines: How can they be more DHH Friendly?

Another tough question, because it truly does depend upon the definition of DHH Friendly unique to each DHH (that’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing, if you recall from my prior post). But it is a question that I will endeavor to answer nonetheless.

The one way that airlines can be more DHH Friendly, is by being reading and writing-accessible.

But airlines already do that, don’t they? They have websites where you can have all the information available and find a lot of the information you’re looking for, right?

Let’s be frank here: no.

The only information that airlines have on their website is the information you need to book flights, request assistance, and make claims; maybe find out information about entertainment on flight and wifi accessibility. The reality is that there is very little information about the actual meat of the flight–what makes the flight comfortable and enjoyable–online. Sure you can find reviews about how horrible that 27B seat on a United flight to LAX is, and plenty of complaints about how bad airline food really is. In fact, the menu of a flight route can change and that article about the beef dish in a particular flight from five months ago may not be relevant any more.

All of this is third party information, not something straight from the airline itself.

And that’s a damn shame, because there is so much that an airline could do to make it more accessible for DHH people, but also be creative and innovative. You don’t have to be stuck in what others have done, but you can lead the way (yes, I’m looking at you, airline companies) in providing different services that make flights better for your clients, which may actually improve your overall customer service. But most importantly, some of these things can make a vast improvement in the lives of everyone on board–both travelers and flight attendants.

Here are a few ideas:

1. PA announcements

Honestly, to this day, I have no clue of what is the purpose of these things (and I’ve been flying for 20+ years). Is it a communication tool between pilots and flight attendants, and/or flight attendants to flight attendants? Is it a way for pilots and flight attendants to communicate with the general public on those flights? Both?

If it’s a communication tool between the staff on the airplane, why don’t we just cut the garbage and stop freezing everyone’s movies for these announcements? They’re of no relevance to people’s flight experience, but are important for yours staff. So it makes more sense to let people enjoy their movies while you communicate with each other, because it gives the flying public the opportunity to tune out of these important communications. In any case, the flying public still wouldn’t have a clue what you’re trying to say if you’re using some airline-specific lingo that the whole crew understands but is lost on the passengers. In fact, most people probably don’t pay attention to the PA announcements anyway, and get frustrated/annoyed when their movies stop playing.

In the instances that this PA announcement is used to communicate with the passengers, it would be useful to have something written to make sure that all of the passengers can understand what is going on over the din of the airplane engines. Now, closed captioning devices are not always accurate (especially over other noise), or have a lag. But perhaps you can come up with a sentence or a phrase that summarizes best what the pilot/ flight attendant is saying. This blurb would then show up on the screen in front of the passenger when the announcement is being made, so it gives an idea of what is going on.

2. Make Menus accessible.

There are several ways to go around making food options accessible to everyone, so that we’re not all screaming at each other mid-flight, 30,000 feet above ground (or water). I’m not sure if you realize, but screaming over the sound of the engine is stressful for both the traveller and attendant (even more so if you’re DHH). Here are two ideas:

A) Make a PDF version available on the flight website or on the app, when the passenger checks in. In this case, the airline can give the passenger the option to choose which meal they would like right there and then in the app/ check in section of the website. This helps the airline in two ways (besides stopping the screaming in mid-flight): passenger gets to know ahead of time what they’re getting and not have to worry about it, and it helps the airline know how many of each meal they should load onto the plane. Because there’s nothing worst than waiting for your meal, only to find out that the flight attendants ran out of the chicken you really wanted midway down the aisle.

B) Menu on the screen. If your airplane is equipped with screens on the back of each chair, this might be the way to go. There are a couple of things you can do with this, too. The meal options can be simply displayed on the screen during the meal-times, as the flight attendant comes down the aisle. Or the passenger can select the meal option on the screen prior to the meal, which in turn would turn a light or a letter on in the flight attendant’s section of the plane. That way, the flight attendant can know which seat gets what option. Airlines can really get creative with this and find different solutions to this problem.

3. Apps that work in-flight with or without wi-fi as well as out of flight.

So, both option #1 and #2 have to do with airplanes having screens on the back of each seat. There’s one solution that has nothing to do with that (Option #2, point a), and really, the vast majority of flights people take are not international, trans-Atlantic, trans-pacific or more than 3 hours, so the flights that most people are likely dealing with are the ones that don’t have any screens in the back of the seats. Why? Well because cheap flight options have been on the rise in recent years, as airlines tack on fees for everything.

One workaround for the above two options is to use the app that airlines already have for check-in processes as an in-flight and out-of-flight communicator. Put the menu options there, and the alerts for the PA system in those apps. Because, let’s face it, these days, a lot of people travel with their personal devices–phones, laptops, tablets–and they tend to use them on their flights to work, read, and entertain. Sometimes they prefer to use their personal devices even on flights that offer screens, simply because they have preferred shows that they want to watch. So what better way is there, than to use those apps to communicate with your clients? Of course, you’d have to get their permission and get them to opt in for these notification for each flight, but the truth is, this is an easy and comfortable solution for all. It can also serve as the out-of-flight communicator to chat with client services when something goes wrong. This is useful for DHH people and anyone who has anxiety dealing with other individuals face to face, because then you can just chat with customer service when something goes wrong, instead of going to the client desk or calling them.

In addition, one thing that would really be helpful in these apps? A map. Yes, you read and hear that right–a map would be super beneficial because airports are confusing, especially large ones that have numerous terminals and gates. If the airline’s app had a map or step by step directions on how to get from the passenger’s current location to their gate, it could help the DHH passengers be more independent travelers, and less reliant upon services of those other individuals who may or may not know Sign Language.

Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions about how airlines can be DHH friendly? Let me know in comments below!

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