Because 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.