In October, I embarked on a significant journey as a Blind person travelling by plane. This time, my destination was Abu Dhabi for work, returning to a familiar place but with new found challenges since my sight loss began. Despite a previous experience with air travel after losing my vision, this trip held special significance. Over the past 4 or 5 years the pandemic had confined me to the UK whilst my visual impairment continued to progress. Join me as I share my firsthand account of the considerations and intricacies involved in being a Blind person travelling by plane.
Planning and Buying Tickets
It’s important to plan ahead and take action to minimize surprises during your journey. I started by choosing a flight. My local airport is small, but it offers flights to Schiphol where I can connect to a flight to any destination. I do think about traveling to a larger local airport, but it usually involves a long and unreliable train ride of 3+ hours, as well as a busier airport to navigate. Familiarity is comforting, so I do consider it when I’m planning.
Last time I flew to Abu Dhabi I took a direct flight from a big airport. But this time there was no direct flight available, so I chose to fly through Humberside, which is a smaller local airport. There are only a few flights to Schipol each day. The flight from my departure airport to Schipol took just one hour. Then, the flight from Schipol to Abu Dhabi took around seven hours. So, in total, the flying time was eight hours. However, I had a layover of nine hours on the way there and six hours on the way back.
Requesting Passenger Assistance
Once I had chosen and reserved my flights, I needed to request passenger assistance for the flights. This is when it became incredibly frustrating because the airline website mentioned assistance but did not provide any links to request it. After trying different paths on the website, I finally found a page where I could ask for assistance. However, even though I was already logged in, the page required me to enter all my information again. So, with a bit of grumbling, I filled out the form and submitted it.
I received confirmation for assistance on my local flight to Schipol. However, I was told that I needed to contact their partner airline for assistance on the second leg of the journey. I thought they would handle the request since I booked the entire journey with them, but they informed me that I had to do it myself. This was disappointing. On the other hand, the partner airline was much better. I was able to confirm my booking for assistance within 10 minutes, which was much faster than the hours I spent with the main airline.
Learning from recent trips on trains (see How Does a Blind Person Travel on Trains), I knew I had to keep my medication and medical device with me. So I packed them in my backpack. I made sure to attach AirTags to all my luggage and put a distinctive orange strap on my suitcase to easily spot it at baggage claim. One useful trick I’ve used before, but forgot this time, was taking a photo of my luggage to show the airport staff when searching for it. I didn’t need it this time, but I’ll remember to do it next time.
Flying Blind Leg 1
The day came and I started my trip to Abu Dhabi. I went to the check-in desk and informed them that I had requested assistance. The staff helped me pass through security and accompanied me to the gate.
Being a small airport, the gate is just a door onto the tarmac with a ramp to walk up onto the plane. The staff checked me onto the flight and then took me to the plane, where the flight attendant helped me find my seat. The flight attendant also went through the emergency procedures with me and showed me the life jacket, so I would know what to do in case of an emergency. When using assistance, you usually board the plane first.
The flight was short, just over an hour, and soon we arrived at Schipol. I have to wait for assistance to come to the plane and take me to the terminal. Usually, this means I have to stay on the plane until everyone else has left, but it’s alright because then I’m taken directly to a lounge at Schiphol. The assistance at Schiphol is always amazing, and it’s a small but important thing that helps me feel less anxious.
Flying Blind – Leg 2
I waited in the lounge and was told when I would be picked up for my next flight. After a few hours, I was taken to my gate for the connecting flight. I was handed over to another assistant who accompanied me to the plane. Similar to the first flight, I was then guided to my seat by a hostess. I received a safety demonstration and was informed about the location of the toilet.
Midway through the flight, I realized I didn’t know how to turn on the assistance light. I had to wait for someone to pass by before I could ask them to help me. On the return journey, I made sure to ask how to turn on the assistance light when I was seated. The flight took much longer this time and, unfortunately, the in-flight entertainment was not accessible. Even though the attendant offered to play a movie for me, it didn’t have audio description so I couldn’t understand it. Since I knew this might happen, I made sure to download plenty of content on my iPhone beforehand.
After nearly 7 hours, we landed in Abu Dhabi. Like on the first flight, I waited to be transferred over to the local assistance. The assistant insisted that I sat in a wheel chair. While I normally insist on walking at Schipol, I figured that part of the assistant’s persistance is that he then knew I was ok and wouldn’t get hurt on route through the airport.
I went through passport control and then to get my baggage. After that, I went to the arrivals lounge where the hotel had arranged for a car to pick me up. This is something my employer does for me. They understand that it’s hard for me to find a taxi in a foreign country, so they let me book a car with the hotel to make sure I am taken care of from the moment I arrive at the airport until I am safely in my hotel.
The Hotel and Stay
After a short journey, I arrive at the hotel and check in. The hotel looked at my booking and offered me an accessible room, I declined as I don’t want to take a wheelchair accessible room away from other travellers. I was guided to my room and they ensured I knew where everything in my room was. Knowing I often struggle with shampoo and body wash, I asked them to tell me which was which, and then placed them in an order that I would remember.
When using the restraunts, I was well looked after with all waiters ensuring I had everything I needed. It was a pleasure to stay in this hotel, with nothing being too much trouble. I was asked by one staff member why I was walking with a white cane, they had never seen one before. The question was from pure curiousity, so I was very happy to explain. It is this curiousity so many are afraid to show, yet it is this we need to spread awareness and remove barriers.
While at the hotel, I used the wifi, but I needed to know that I could get help while out and about. Having checked my networks charges before leaving, I knew I couldn’t use that, not even in an emergency. It was £2.49 per minute and 500mb was over £7.50 per day, if I pre-paid. More if I just used it. So I tried an Airalo eSIM. On my iPhone I download the Airalo app (phone must support eSIMs), found the eSim I wanted to buy and followed the instructions. Within 10 minutes I had purchased 1gb of data that I could use over a 7 day period for about £7 and set my phone up to use it. The service was so easy and I was able to use my phone outside the hotel as needed.
At the end of my stay, I checked out and was taken by the hotel car to the airport. Just like on the journey in, I was provided assistence throughout. The assistance varies by airport, however, on this journey I found it all to be very good.
Tips for a Blind Person Travelling by Plane
Here are a few tips I picked up / remembered during my trip:
- Book Assistance
- Use a Passport holder that hangs around your neck, to keep your passport and ticket close
- Ensure you luggage is distinctive
- Take pictures of your luggage, so you can show people when at baggage claim
- Use AirTags to track luggage
- Ensure medication and medical devices are in your carry on luggage
- Use hotel cars to minimise the stress of getting to the hotel
- Research and line up an eSim for data when you are out and about. Check out Airalo eSIMs
- Ensure you have a VPN for travel – sometimes you can’t access services you normally would when travelling.
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