Airlines ‘Signing’ New Ways to Make Travel More Accessible

Sign language, other skills help airline crews make a difference for deaf and hard of hearing travelers, other passengers with disabilities

By Natalie Fiorilli

Published August 26, 2019

Read Time: 3 mins


Airport paging systems, in-flight announcements, safety instructions presented by flight attendants and the steady drone of a jet-engine aircraft. Let’s face it; for most of the traveling public, the experience of airports and airplanes is unrelentingly noisy.

Many passengers wear headphones to cancel out the sounds and distractions, but passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing have a far different challenge. To navigate the airport and the airline, they need to connect with people who know sign language – in their native tongue – or can easily access written communication.

More than 5 percent of the world’s population has some form of disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. Last month, Delta Air Lines announced that crew members who can sign will wear special pins on their uniforms that specify which sign languages they know.

“Our mission is to connect the world, which starts with making travel easier for all people,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote in a post announcing the new initiative on his LinkedIn page.

Bastian noted the pins will allow deaf or hard of hearing passengers to connect with Delta team members who can sign in their language, adding, “It’s a small step on our journey, but a powerful change as we seek to make the world a smaller, more inclusive place.”

Making a difference

Svetlana Kouznetsova, a New York-based consultant who helps businesses with accessibility issues, was pleasantly surprised when a flight attendant on an Iceland Air flight was able to use some sign language to communicate with her.

“She signed to me, ‘My name is Sandra,’” said Kouznetsova. “It was so cool but also surprising because it was in American Sign Language.”

Kouznetsova, who became deaf in both ears after contracting meningitis at age 2, said airlines and airports still have lots to learn about improving accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing travelers. One major issue for deaf travelers, she said, is the lack of captioning provided for audible announcements made in airports and on flights.

“The vast majority of deaf and hard-of-hearing people use spoken languages and don’t know sign language. Also, sign language is not the same in every country,” she said.

Still, airlines with crew members who can sign make a difference, she said.

“Flight attendants who know sign language may still benefit non-signing deaf people because they have more sensitivity and understand better than others how to communicate with them in different ways,” Kouznetsova said.

Many airlines are making strides in improving communication with deaf and hard of hearing passengers and people with other disabilities. Among them:

  • Flight attendants from United and other airlines are improving their communication skills, including learning sign language, through various approved language schools, a United spokeswoman said. The airline recently shared a personal success story about one of its LAX-based flight attendants that made a lasting impression with a deaf passenger by using sign language.
  • Seattle-based Alaska Airlines offers its crew members training on how to best assist and communicate with individuals with disabilities. “Our training includes crew member participation in accessibility experiential exercise,” explained an Alaska spokesman, who added that some crew members even spend a day in a wheelchair to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by travelers with various disabilities.
  • The Southwest Airlines website advises travelers to contact a customer service agent at their departure gate for assistance with communication. For deaf and hard of hearing passengers, Southwest says it gives travelers access to the same information as other passengers in the gate area and on the aircraft.
  • Similarly, American Airlines lists information on its website for deaf travelers to inform gate agents and flight attendants to communicate flight updates. The airline also offers closed-captioned safety videos.
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