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Up in the Air – Almost Getting Stranded at the Airport

Airplane flying out of O'HareBecause of vision loss caused by retinitis pigmentosa, I’m almost completely blind. That does not, however, stop me from traveling alone. I do have one fear, however—being stranded at the airport. It was only recently that it became a real possibility.

It was a Thursday, and I was scheduled to depart O’Hare at noon for Minneapolis, where I’d visit a friend until Sunday. I’d been listening to forecasts of “severe storms” for days, fearing delays and other complications. And, indeed, as my daughter Megan drove me to the airport, I got a text from the airline which I listened to, via voice technology, on my smartphone—my flight was cancelled. At that moment, the skies opened up. I asked Megan to turn back home.

I called the reservations office, which told me I’d been booked on the first flight the following morning—7:20 a.m. So I arrived at O’Hare at 6 a.m. that morning, escorted this time by Megan’s fiancé, Andrew. He walked me to the ticket counter, where we asked if I could get guided assistance to the gate. “Of course,” we were told, so Andrew left.

Two minutes later, I was told the flight had been cancelled. My heart sank. The next flight, leaving at 10:15 a.m., was fully booked. So I was put on standby for that flight and booked on the following flight, for 1:47 p.m. It was 6:15 a.m. I could possibly be on my own for seven hours.

I was led to the area where people needing wheelchair assistance gather. With time to kill, I called my brother, Barrett, who’s a seasoned traveler. While describing my situation, for some strange reason, I began to get emotional. He told me the airline should try to find me a flight with another carrier. So I was now ready to head back to the ticket counter—only it was 50 feet away. I sat there and waited—and felt, this time, as if I might cry.

I should explain. I’m not the emotional type. I’m a practical guy who usually takes charge of challenging situations. But as you lose your eyesight, the control you once had slips away, bit by bit, and it’s accompanied by feelings of helplessness. Learning how to depend much more on others is not easy.

Eventually, I called out for help, and a very nice young woman responded by taking me to the ticket counter. After running through several possibilities, I was booked on another carrier’s flight, departing at 11 a.m. The only catch—it was departing from a different terminal.

I grabbed the piece of paper in front of me and was led to the other terminal, where, at security, I was told they needed a boarding pass. Evidently I’d picked up the wrong piece of paper. So, with an escort in tow, I returned to the other terminal, picked up the pass, then made my way to the other carrier’s ticket counter. The 11 a.m. flight, I was told, had been over-booked. I’d have to settle for standby.

I sat there, wondering what to try next. As if on cue, I got a text from my friend in Minneapolis. She told me there was a 9:15 flight I should try. But, at that point, there were no airline employees at the gate. So I asked my escort to take me to the nearest gate with an employee.

Timing, they say, is everything. The airline employee, realizing a nearby flight was about to leave for Minneapolis, ran to the gate to see if there was room. Next, I heard her tell my escort, “Put him in 12D.”

“Did I just hear you right?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “Now hurry up and get on before it leaves without you!” I did as I was told, but only after I gave her a hug, once again feeling emotion creep back in.

After settling in my seat, I learned that the only reason the plane was still there was that, for technical reasons, it had been delayed for over an hour. We took off 15 minutes later and, in less than an hour, touched down in Minneapolis.

Airports are challenging for everyone, the sighted and the visually impaired. What I learned from this experience is that my options are many, should something similar happen in the future. But it also reinforced that, when necessary, we have to rely on the good graces of others—friends, colleagues and strangers.

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3 Responses to 'Up in the Air – Almost Getting Stranded at the Airport'

  1. Susan Falender says:

    Wow John, your predicament almost brought tears to my eyes. I have been totally blind for 22 years with RP and have had to give up a part of my independence. I’m on my 3rd seeing eye dog and have been able get around most places with my guide dog, however, not in airports. When you have to rely on others it is extremely scary and can never be as dependable and safe as we would like. I will usually luck out and find a dog lover that wants to visit with my working dog and I will enlist that person in helping me out. This has worked many times for me and I hope it will continue. On the flip side, last summer my husband and I were at an airport waiting for our flight and the flight was overbooked and they were offering $600. vouchers to take the next flight out. My husband was charging his phone and did not want to bother with getting up but told me if I could make it to the ticket counter, which was 50 feet away, we could take advantage of the $600 per person voucher, and guess what, I made it there! We are now making plans to visit California this summer! Thanks for sharing your experience, I totally feel your pain and so would most visually impaired and blind people. Let’s keep pushing the boundaries as we pursue our daily lives and dreams. Suzy Falender

  2. Rosina Foster says:

    Wow. That can be a scary situation. However, I’m a little at a loss about a few things. Losing vision can be a scary thing but it dosent have to be life ending or the end if all independence. Life changing yes but not life ending. I myself have two blind children and my oldest was in this almost same situation. The only difference that I can see was I. His confidence due to the alternative skills that he uses. When this happened to him he was traveling at age 15. He has been to many independence training programs run by the National Federation if the Blind and we didn’t have any issues with him traveling alone.
    Anyway, he was returning from a program and was dropped off at the airport. When he got to the ticket counter he was informed that his flight was running late and he would miss his connecting flight. Being as he was coming into a very small airport there were no other flights until the next day so he would be stuck at the airport at the connecting city. He asked the lady at ticket counter what he needed to do to reschedule his flight. She told him he needed to go to the help desk line to do that and have him directions. While he was waiting in line he called me to let me know he would be a day late and what was happening. His plan was to get the first leg of flight done, find his connecting gate and just wait their all night. Lol. Being the momma bear that I am I told him to reschedule his entire flight for the next day as he was not staying at the unknown airport by himself. He did that and then called the center when he had just left. They said to come back to stay the night and have him the address. He finished his flight rescheduling the stepped outside to hail a can and went back to the center. Was I a bit scared? Yes but I knew that he had the skills to get where he needed to be. And more importantly so did he. Confidence works wonders. Blindness can be scary at first but with the right skills it can be reduced to a mere annoyance. We all depend on each other but it dosent need to be more than anyone else.

  3. Vijay lakshmi says:

    I really appreciate you Jhon I will like to share my problem if you like.

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