Air travel with hearing loss can present both communication and navigation challenges and may feel scary, particularly if you're not a seasoned traveler. Hearing loss can affect every aspect of airplane travel, from check-in to boarding, not to mention those last-minute gate change announcements.
Here we explore accommodations from some of the most popular U.S. airlines for their passengers with hearing loss. We also offer handy tips for traveling with hearing loss and hearing technology to ensure you have an enjoyable journey.
Air travel and hearing loss: What are your rights?
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) published a Bill of Rights in July 2022, which describes the fundamental rights of air travelers with disabilities under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA or Act).
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and General Counsel John Putnam explain the DOT's "Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights" which, among other things, asserts that passengers who identify as needing hearing assistance must receive prompt access to the same trip information as other passengers at the gate, ticket area, customer service desk, and on the aircraft. Closed captions are available on this video. If you are using a mobile phone, please enable captions clicking on the gear icon.
The Bill of Rights prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in commercial air travel and applies to all flights of U.S. airlines, and flights to or from the country by foreign airlines.
The Bill of Rights consists of:
- The Right to Be Treated with Dignity and Respect
- The Right to Receive Information About Services and Aircraft Capabilities and Limitations
- The Right to Receive Information in an Accessible Format
- The Right to Accessible Airport Facilities
- The Right to Assistance at Airports
- The Right to Assistance on the Aircraft
- The Right to Travel with an Assistive Device or Service Animal
- The Right to Receive Seating Accommodations
- The Right to Accessible Aircraft Features
- The Right to Resolution of a Disability-Related Issue
Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines ensure people with hearing loss have the right to indicate their need for assistive accommodations when booking their flight, either online or over the phone.
Accommodations for people with hearing loss by the major airlines
HearingTracker scoured the websites of some of the leading US airlines namely, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and United Airlines, to find out more about the accommodations they offer for their passengers with hearing loss.
Although all airlines must comply with the DOT's Bill of Rights, many have extra or unique services for people who have hearing loss.
All the airlines we considered have a clear mission to deliver an accessible, safe, and reliable service to their customers. Each airline has at least one designated page with details of their assistance services. The airlines offer support at every stage of your journey, including boarding, on the airplane, and at your destination.
Chris Perry, Public Relations Consultant at Southwest Airlines told HearingTracker, “We are continually monitoring ways to improve our travel experience, and engage with the Department of Transportation and our industry partners on potential regulatory changes.”
Here’s what HearingTracker found regarding what the different airlines offer for hearing accessibility services:
Delta Air Lines
- Assistance communicating, checking in, boarding, deplaning, and connecting to another flight
- Seats at the front of the plane for customers with a service animal, or who require the use of an aisle chair
- The option of an adjoining seat for a companion providing a certain type of assistance, such as an interpreter for a passenger who is deaf or hard of hearing
- The opportunity to board before all other passengers
- Personal updates of important flight news and safety instructions
- Onboard safety videos with subtitles
- The option to reserve the best seat for your needs, such as when traveling with someone to help you during the flight
- Early boarding if you need more time or assistance to board
- Captions and subtitle options on the in-flight entertainment
- At least one telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) in each of their domestic airports
- Individual safety briefing if required
- Adjoining seats for travelers who have a disability and are traveling with someone who assists them during the flight
- Prompt access to the same information provided to others in the gate area and onboard (e.g., boarding and baggage claim information, schedule changes, flight safety information, etc.)
- The option to purchase an additional seat If you need more than one seat to accommodate a disability
- Preboarding for individuals with a disability who need a specific seat or just need a little extra time getting situated onboard
- Individual assistance for customers who are deaf or hard of hearing and need assistance
- An individual safety briefing if required
- Designated seating for customers who are entitled to accommodations, such as customers traveling with a personal care attendant or service animal
- Pre-boarding for customers with disabilities
What’s clear from the information on these websites is the importance of making your hearing loss known, should you require accommodations during your journey.
Airports are busy places for both passengers and workers. If you would like special assistance, you should make sure you self-identify as having hearing loss.
Although you are never required to self-disclose your disability, if you would like special assistance boarding, deplaning, or making a connecting flight, it is important to make sure you self-identify as having hearing loss. You can alert the airline of your needs when booking your flight, and you can make your hearing loss known at each stage of your journey or whenever you require accommodations.
A note on hearing dogs
Service animals such as hearing dogs are accepted in the cabin for qualified individuals with a disability. All airlines require travelers to complete a U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form.
Service animals must satisfy various criteria, such as appearing clean and healthy, being microchipped, and being able to fit in the floor space in front of your assigned seat. Be sure to check the individual airline for more details or connect their customer services department for more information regarding documentation and criteria.
How to request accommodations
Each airline has various methods of requesting accessibility services before your travel day, which include the following:
- Accessibility request forms
- The option to add a special request to your reservation
- Accessibility assistance lines (with access to a telecommunications relay service, which allows you to place and receive telephone calls via a keyboard or assistive device)
For comprehensive information on an airline's accessibility services, be sure to contact them, or if you have any questions or specific requirements, let them know what assistance you need.
The Sunflower initiative
For airport staff, it is immediately apparent that extra assistance may be needed for some people, as in the case of a person with a wheelchair. However, invisible (or hidden) disabilities, such as hearing loss, are not readily apparent. According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 in 4 (26%) American adults have some type of disability, many of them not visually apparent.
In 2016, the Accessibility team at Gatwick Airport introduced the use of a Sunflower printed lanyard to better meet the needs of all travelers with disabilities. Passengers with invisible disabilities can request a sunflower lanyard to discreetly inform airport staff in customer service roles that they may need a little extra support, patience, or time.
The Sunflower Initiative, which is designed to help people with hidden disabilities like hearing loss, helps identify you as someone who may need a little more assistance in the airport or onboard the plane. The program has now been incorporated in 183 airports and 5 airlines in 26 countries.
The Sunflower program is quickly gaining recognition at U.S. airports and around the world. There is no qualifying list of invisible disabilities. If you have an invisible disability, such as hearing loss, and feel that you would benefit from wearing a sunflower lanyard, simply ask for one at one of the locations that support the initiative.
To check if an airport supports the lanyard initiative and locations of collection points, visit their accessibility page on their website or contact them before traveling. You do not have to disclose your hearing loss and are not required to answer any additional questions.
Eight travel tips for people with hearing loss
Navigating the airport can feel daunting for people with hearing loss. But with a few preparations, you can successfully overcome any challenges that may be presented to you, enabling you to focus on enjoying your trip.
Here are some tips for a safe and pleasant journey with hearing loss:
1) Embrace technology for logistics
For check-in, you can avoid any difficulties communicating with the airline staff at the counter by instead using a self-check-in kiosk.
Shari Eberts, hearing health advocate, writer, speaker, and blogger at Living with Hearing Loss, advises, “Whenever traveling by plane, download all relevant apps onto your smartphone before you go. Most airline apps include timetables and provide alerts for gate changes or delays. And if your flight is canceled, you can usually rebook yourself from the app to avoid challenging phone calls with customer service.”
Airport kiosks and free downloadable airline apps are handy and time efficient tools for checking in and/or getting updated on flight information without the need for verbal communication.
Bluetooth accessories such as remote mics can make it easier to talk to airline workers or your travel companions amongst the airport background noise.
2) Make use of hearing loops
Some airports provide hearing loop systems, or audio induction loops, which enable people with hearing aids and cochlear implants to hear more clearly in places with lots of background noise. The system provides a wireless magnetic signal that is received directly by your hearing device. To connect to the system, simply set your hearing aids or implant to the “T” (Telecoil) setting.
Look for airport signs that alert passengers to where they can receive communications via their telecoil-equipped hearing aids or implants.
3) Wear your hearing aids and cochlear implants through security
According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA):
You are not required to remove any hearing aids or cochlear implants (CIs). Additional screening, including a pat-down or inspection of a device, may be required if it alarms the walk-through metal detector or advanced imaging technology.
It can be helpful to be aware of the following points when going through airport security:
- Wearing your devices through security not only ensures they are safe but also means you can communicate more effectively during the process. There is a possibility that the scanner could cause hearing aids or CIs to make a disturbing noise due to interference with the signal. For this reason, you might want to turn down the volume on your hearing device before going through the scanner.
- When passing through security checkpoints with a CI, there is a small chance the processor may activate the alarm. The security agent may then use a handheld wand to screen you and your CI. Don’t worry, the wand will not harm the CI, though it will beep when it passes over the speech processor.
- The TSA recommends you tell the security officer if you have hearing loss and require assistance with the screening process. It’s a good idea to tell the security agent that you are wearing hearing aids or implants before you go through a detector, just so that they are aware of any devices.
- Travelers in the U.S. can download and print a TSA notification card or other medical documentation, which you can give to the security officer to discreetly inform them of your hearing loss. This card can be particularly helpful when traveling with a CI to ensure the airport staff understands you have an implanted medical device for hearing.
- There’s some disagreement about whether X-ray machines could damage the microphones used in hearing aids and CIs.
As a precaution, be sure to pack any spare hearing aids or CI equipment in your carry-on bag, rather than storing it in your checked luggage (which will be subject to X-ray scanning.)
If you have a CI, you can request a full-body pat-down and a visual and physical inspection of the sound processor, instead of the standard metal detector and x-ray procedure.
To summarize, if you do decide to remove your hearing devices when going through security, avoid placing them directly on the X-ray belt, just to be on the safe side. Instead, during airport security screening, the processors should be examined by hand.
If you feel more comfortable just going through a metal detector, instead of the usual scanners, you can also apply for the TSA Pre-Check program. Note that this needs to be done in advance and requires a 10-minutes in-person appointment that includes fingerprinting for a background check.
You can wear your hearing aids or implants as you move through security, although it's a good idea to alert the TSA officers so they are aware of the devices. Just to be on the safe side, it's best if you don't put them in the trays and subject them to the X-ray machine.
4) Wear your hearing aids when you fly
When the flight attendant asks everyone to turn off electronic devices, this does not apply to hearing aids or implants. Wearing your hearing aids during the flight will make it easier to hear any onboard announcements and your travel companions.
5) Use ear protection
“Air travel is loud! For years, I walked off the plane with my ears ringing and my head spinning, until I discovered noise-canceling headphones,” explains Eberts. “Wearing noise-canceling headphones on the plane will help keep your ears safe and may even suppress the onset of noise-induced tinnitus. It works for me!”
If you commonly experience ear pressure on airplanes due to changes in air pressure when flying, you might also want to try ear plugs such as EarPlanes, which have a filter to equalize pressure.
Airplanes are loud. Pack a set of noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds to reduce suppress the noise while helping to relax.
6) Pack wisely
Air travel can be unpredictable at times, and you may be faced with unexpected delays and layovers. “One tip is to bring extra batteries and chargers,” advises Eberts. “Replacement batteries may be harder to find in unfamiliar locations. Pack a supply of batteries in each of your travel bags in case one gets misplaced. Check that all your chargers are working well and bring an extra if available.” If packing a charger, don't forget to pack an adapter for the local power socket.
Keeping your hearing aid and CI accessories in your carry-on bag allows you to maintain your hearing devices in working order throughout your journey. Suggestions of other supplies to consider packing in your carry-on bag include the following:
- Extra domes and wax guards
- A small hearing aid dehumidifier, particularly if you are traveling to a warm, humid destination
- Cleaning kit
- Hearing aid splash protectors or wind sleeves, if you plan to enjoy active outdoor activities, such as camping and hiking
- If possible, an old hearing aid/CI equipment (ear hook, T-mic, cable, and headpiece) as backup
7) Check your hearing devices before traveling
To be extra safe, you might want to check in with your hearing care provider before leaving town. They can check your hearing devices are clean and working correctly and make any necessary adjustments. You can also pick up some extra domes or batteries while you’re there.
Depending on the severity of your hearing loss, you might want to inform a flight attendant or the person in the seat next to you of your hearing loss in case there are any important announcements.
Eberts explains, “People often forget about hearing loss because it is invisible, so don’t be shy about reminding others of your needs. A gentle prompt like holding your hand behind your ear often works well and does not disrupt the flow of dialogue. Request logistical information in writing whenever possible—carrying paper and pen in your bag makes that an easy ask.”
Travel is a great way to stay connected to loved ones, and explore new places and cultures. Don’t let your hearing loss hold you back! Know your rights, make your hearing loss known if you need assistance, and try some of the tips mentioned above to make your travel easier and more enjoyable.
FAQs About Traveling with a Hearing Loss
Yes. Although hearing loss is a hidden disability, U.S. airlines are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to make accommodations for people with hearing loss and other disabilities, including provision of information in an accessible format, assistance, and the right to travel with a hearing dog or service animal.
No, you do not need to shut off your hearing aids or disengage the Bluetooth on an airplane. You are allowed to keep your hearing aids on for safety reasons and for hearing travel companions, flight attendants, as well as for keeping abreast of flight connection information.
No. You should tell the security staff that you're wearing a hearing aid or processor in case it sets off the metal detector. (If this happens, they can ensure it's the device that is setting off the metal detector.) The metal detector will not damage your device. It might be wise to avoid placing any hearing device in the plastic trays on the X-ray belt or wearing them in an X-ray machine, as there is some debate about how this could damage electronic components within the devices.
Hearing Health Writer
Carly Sygrove is a hearing loss coach and a hearing health writer who has single-sided deafness. She writes about living with hearing loss at My Hearing Loss Story and manages an online support group for people with hearing loss. She is also the founder of the Sudden Hearing Loss Support website, a source of information and support for people affected by sudden hearing loss.