For passengers with low or no vision, the task of navigating through an airline terminal or cabin can seem daunting, but some volunteers are hoping to ease the stress.
Andre Cuesta has avoided flying. The thought of maneuvering through the crammed seats and aisles with finesse is overwhelming, he said, and with the added task of managing a four-legged companion, the tight space seems even more daunting.
But Cuesta, 41, has airline tickets to travel from his home in Tacoma to his mom’s in West Palm Beach, Fla., later this year. It’ll be the first flight since he suddenly went blind three years ago and started a rehabilitation process toward establishing newfound independence without vision.
“I flew a lot in the past before I lost my sight,” he said Thursday evening while seated in a Boeing 737 plane. He patted his guide dog, Thoreau, adding, “Now that I’m blind, it’s not the same.
The canine sat calmly near Cuesta’s feet as a flight attendant helped guide his hands through the knobs above his seat and explained how to navigate the plane’s layout for getting to the bathroom, if needed.
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The lesson was part of an annual mock flight demonstration at a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Alaska Airlines hangar designed to give people who are blind or visually impaired confidence to comfortably fly with little assistance. Cuesta was one student among dozens of volunteers, canines and participants that took advantage of the event, which organizers say has grown since its beginning three years ago.
Once the crew boarded, the captain on the overhead speaker gave updates on the trip to “Hawaii” and led tours of the plane’s cockpit. The aircraft stayed motionless in the hangar, which is typically used for planes needing maintenance, as flight attendants and volunteers guided participants in and around the cabin inside.
It was Jake Koch’s second time on the fake trip. The 27-year-old works for Guide Dogs for the Blind, a social-service agency that was a leading group in organizing the tutorial. The lessons are important to give people who travel with dogs tips on planning for the animals’ eating schedules, for instance, he said, and caretakers must be attuned to what’s around them.
Real passengers with service dogs are required to register their animals with staff before getting onboard, and flight attendants undergo training to make sure they’re adequately helping people with disabilities, organizers said. For instance, staff provide manuals in Braille and escort people around the cabin when needed, they said.
For Koch, who describes his impaired vision as tunnellike, airline trips have mostly been smooth. One time, though, airport staff escorted him into a confined room in an airport terminal intended for minors. An adult at the time, he now uses the anecdote to show assumptions can lead to error.
Flight attendant Shirley Purkey, who founded the concept behind Thursday’s demonstration, said she partnered with the state’s Department of Services for the Blind to give the training. It’s important for airline staff to make everyone feel prepared and comfortable when boarding a plane, and for someone with low or no vision, the responsibility is even greater, she said.
Cuesta described blindness as emptiness. “It’s not darkness; it’s absolutely nothing at all,” he said. It’s like being in a shower and feeling water pour down without ever knowing where it’s coming from, he added.
But after Thursday’s tutorial, flying seems less daunting, he said. And instead of feeling nervous about his December trip down south, he’s ready to add it to the list of tasks he’s relearning without sight.