How can people who are blind navigate airports on their own?

April 9, 2016 • Posted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, technology for people who are blind, travel, Uncategorized, Whitney by

Hello from the Pacific Northwest – my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I flew here from Chicago Wednesday for Sisters Weekend. The long flight from Seattle to Chicago gave me time to write out answers to questions I get about how I navigate O’Hare alone with my Seeing Eye dog:

Whitney makes the most of travel time.

Whitney makes the most of travel time.

  • How do you get to the airport? Many people who are blind use public transportation to get to airports, but I’m afraid of using the subway alone with my Seeing Eye dog – I’m nervous about falling into the tracks. I’d be open to taking a Chicago Transit Authority bus, but I’d want to do a trial run ahead of time to know exactly where they’d be dropping me off. I usually use a hotel shuttle, taxi, limo, or van service, and I tip well.
  • Where do you tell them to drop you off? Before I leave home, I check and double-check which airline I’m using and have the driver let me off at that specific Curbside check-in. Even if I’m not checking a bag, the workers at curbside check-in can check me in, get my boarding pass and sign me in for airport assistance. The curbside check-in worker guides my Seeing Eye dog and me to a seat inside and lets me know what my call number is. I tip them well.
  • What do you do in the waiting area? I empty my pockets and put my change, iPhone, keys, and all into a compartment of my carry-on (will make it easier to go through security). Then I listen for a red cap to come call out my assigned number.
  • How do you get to security? When a red cap calls our number, I get their attention and have them place my carry-on bag onto the seat of the wheelchair they brought along. I give my Seeing Eye dog the “follow” command and we shadow the red cap to the security line.
  • How do you get into the screening area? For obvious reasons, I don’t have a valid driver’s license. I use a State of Illinois ID card instead, and show that along with my boarding pass as I enter the screening area. I have a cool wallet with a long pocket that holds my boarding pass and ID in it, very handy if/when I need them again at the gate.
  • How do you get through security? I take my laptop computer and hand it to my airport assistant to place in a bin along with my shoes, jacket, and carry-on bag.
  • How do you get through the magnetometer? After giving my Seeing Eye dog the “sit” command, I lengthen her leash and give her a “rest” command so she’ll sit still while I let the TSA screener know how I intend on getting through. My dog sits while I explain, and her leash remains in my left hand as I extend my right hand to the scrrener and ask them to pull me through the arch. If I brush against the interior wall by mistake, the alarm sounds. I remind my Seeing Eye dog to “rest” where she is and I return, turn around, extend my right hand to the screener and walk through the arch again. Once I get verbal confirmation from the TSA agent that I’ve cleared successfully, I turn around and call the dog to come through. The alarm goes off when my dog comes through, but going through by myself ahead of my dog makes it clear to the screeners that her harness and leash set off the alarm, not me.
  • So do they have to wand the dog, then? Sometimes the screener wands her harness, and they always feel around her collar and pet her to inspect as well. I often quip to the TSA worker that my dog is the only creature who actually likes going though security. “It’s the only time I let someone pet her when her harness is on!”
  • How do you get your stuff off the conveyor belt? It’s important for me to remember what color jacket I was wearing, what shoes I had on and what type of laptop I use so I can describe them to the red cap helping me — they collect my things once they’ve cleared security. I’ve added Braille stickers to some of the keys on my laptop. So I often open it quickly and feel the keys to confirm its mine.
  • How do you find the gate from there? The red cap knows where the gate is, so I give my dog a “follow!” command and we shadow them from there. Once we’re at the gate, the red cap finds me a seat, heads to the desk with my boarding pass and returns with a pre-boarding ticket for us. I tip my red cap well.

Usually at this point I wait for someone from the airline to approach us and let us know they’re about to announce pre-boarding. I give my dog the “follow” command and follow the staff member to the jetway, hand over the ticket, board the plane, find our window seat and position my Seeing Eye dog under the seat in front of me with her head sticking out between my feet

On Wednesday, my sister Bev would be boarding along with my Seeing Eye dog and me once her flight from Grand Rapids arrived. After saying good bye to the red cap, I took my iPhone out and used VoiceOver to send Bev a text: “At gate.” Bev’s text came back immediately. “At airport Cubs bar. Meet you at gate soon.” Right then I knew: it was going to be an entertaining weekend with the sisters!

Sheila A. Donovan On April 9, 2016 at 10:33 am

Wow, I thought it was tedious going through security for the average person, but for a blind person it is definitely a chore! You’re well practiced by now. Enjoy your sisters get together and I hope it’s warmer than in Chicago!

bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 10:28 am

*Definitely* warmer than Chicago — thanks for the comment.


nbollero On April 9, 2016 at 10:49 am

Hope you have a great time in the northwest. Should be some good coffee out there.

bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 10:31 am

You know, I haven’t had one of those quintessential cups of Seattle coffee yet — have spent all of our time on the San Juan Islands, where, to my surprise, the coffee isn’t as strong and there aren’t all those coffee shops. Will try to grab a Seattle cup of java in the airport tomorrow on our way home…


Charlene On April 9, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Have a great sister weekend! Hello to you & Marilee.

bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 10:32 am

Thanks, Charlene. After hitting the “send” button on this message, I’ll share your greetings with Marilee — she’s outside on the deck right now, and it’s high time I join her.


Regan Burke On April 9, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I was with you at every step. This is about the same as me going through in a wheelchair which I treat myself to in order to keep the howling knees at bay. When I worked in Washington and traveled all the time I often brought my Scottish Terrier, Voter, onboard in a bag that I kept under the seat. In those days I didn’t need a wheelchair. I put his bag on the belt and carried him thru the metal detector. God did that dog love to travel.

Besides the blindness, there’s one big difference in your travel and mine: I don’t tip all those people.

I can’t wait to read about the weekend. I envy those sisters that they get to spend so much time with you.

bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 10:35 am

Ha! My sisters would roll their eyes big time to read that last sentence, Regan. And I had to laugh to think of your dog going through the conveyor belt at security…what a sight!


Nancy Lerman On April 10, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Lana and Brit now have something to talk about. I’m assuming that you & Whit are flying out of SeaTac? So has Lana! She was born in Tacoma and flew the same route home with us. Safe travels!

Nancy Lerman On April 10, 2016 at 4:53 pm

Opps, Whit of course. Sorry for the typo!

bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 6:27 pm

For a given.

Sent from my iPhone, aren’t you impressed?


bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 6:26 pm

I picture it like a New Yorker cartoon. Whitney and Lana discussing the Seattle airport…

Sent from my iPhone, aren’t you impressed?


Dmarta On April 10, 2016 at 7:04 pm

Hi Neighbor! I’m in San Francisco at my son’s wedding. Looking forward to our first class. Diana

Sent from my iPhone


bethfinke On April 11, 2016 at 3:45 pm

Writing you on our flight home. I’ll wave when we’re over San Francisco — looking forward to hearing all about the wedding when we’re together for class April 21…


Sue Doyle On April 10, 2016 at 8:28 pm

So proud of you that you didn’t meet your sister/s at the Cubs Bar!! GO SOX!!

bethfinke On April 10, 2016 at 10:37 pm

go to a Cubs bar with my sister? No way! Go White Sox.

Sent from my iPhone, aren’t you impressed?


Robert Ringwald On April 11, 2016 at 1:14 am

I am totally blind. I have flown by myself many times. I pretty much do the same things that Beth outlined in her blog. I might add that airport personnel are very helpful to handicapped travelers.

When I get to the gate and I am told that someone will come and get me when preboard commences, I still question the personnel to find out where the gate is from where I am sitting or standing. This for the following reason:

one time I was told that they would come get me. After a while I heard on the announcement for all preboards to go to the red door. No one came to get me and of course I had no idea where the red door was. I had to ask someone sitting near me which direction it was. Then I just started walking in that direction. The gate person saw me and all turnd out OK.

Beth mentioned that she likes to get a window seat. I am guessing that this is probably because she has the seeing Eye dog and won’t have to get up every time a seat companion wants to go to the restroom.

I don’t have a dog. So personally, when I am flying alone, I like the isle seat. It is easier for me to talk to the flight attendant.

However, on my last trip, just last Friday from the east coast to the West coast, I was using my computer and had to get up twice to let the people in the middle and in the window seats get up to use the restroom. With a computer and earphones, this was a bit of a hassle. But I survived and all is well.

Another time I was flying from the East coast to the Burbank CA airport in Los Angeles. We stopped somewhere, maybe in Chicago or Denver. The flight attendant made the announcement for all people going to Los Angeles to stay on the plane. Well . . . . I wasn’t thinking. I was flying to Burbank, not Los Angeles. To me, I was flying to Los Angeles.

When I didn’t show up for my flight to Burbank, the airport personnel actually came and found me. The one thing I do not understand is usually when it is time to preboard, they take the wheelchairs first. This takes quite a while while the blind person has to wait. If they would let the blind person on ahead of the wheelchairs, he/she could have already found his seat, put his carryon away and be out of the way of the chairs by the time they arrived.

-Bob Ringwald

Hanni and Whit: Safe & Sound | Safe & Sound blog On April 15, 2016 at 1:41 pm

[…] been a busy travel week for my Seeing Eye dog and me. We flew back from our fun-filled Sisters’ Weekend in the Pacific Northwest Monday night and then turned around Wednesday to take a three-hour train ride from Chicago to […]

Deborah Darsie On April 29, 2016 at 12:44 am

I am so bummed you were literally in my neighborhood – I am 20-30 minutes from SeaTac airport. Anacortes is where the organization I puppy-raise for is located.

What an interesting ‘dance’ getting through the scanner is…and then Whitney coming through on her own is brilliant. I bet they just pat her down because they need stress reduction!

I hope your visit was a great one!

bethfinke On April 29, 2016 at 8:51 am

Next time, I promise, we’ll get together. This time was so tight I couldn’t squeeze anything else in.We didnt’ even step foot in Seattle…except for the airport.


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