Airport Accessibility: Palm Springs Edition

by Anna Phillips, DHH Adult, California

In early February 2000, I had the opportunity to travel from North California down to Palm Springs for my grandfather’s 80th birthday party, which was a surprise. Traveling there and back was one for the books. This experience would have been just an annoying experience for a hearing person, but turned out to be extremely frustrating for me, as a Deaf Adult.

Flying out of SFO (San Francisco International) into PSP (Palm Springs International) was not only delayed, but my departing airport got moved from SFO to SJC (San Jose International), and then I was put on a waiting list for the flight I had purchased. On the way home, there was a big windstorm on the coast of California, essentially grounding all flights. My flight home was delayed 8 hours. This seems normal for flight travel, as things change with a drop of a hat and passengers really just need to go with the flow and trust that they will get home safely one way or another.

However, throughout this entire experience, being a Deaf adult, getting information in real-time about flight information was impossible. My experience was incredibly frustrating and when departing PSP (with the 8 hour delay), even got the Assistant Director of Aviation at PSP involved with the support of my bulldozer Aunt who taught me never to back down when something is in the wrong.

When I arrived at PSP, I got a notification from my United Airlines App, noting that the flight had been delayed 1.5 hours. No problem, I thought, as I lined up to get a cup of coffee. When I sat down and waited the time out, I looked around the small airport and realized that the gates were roughly 30 feet away from each other. Every time there was an announcement made (I can hear the loudspeaker, but the words are all fuzzy), everyone in the airport looked up. It was immediately clear that either they were making a general announcement to all passengers, or everyone was trying to figure out if it was coming from their own gate. Fearful that my own flight was being delayed again, I got up from my seat to stand in line for 20 minutes to ask the counter what’s happening. I did this about 3 or 4 times. Finally, after discovering that my flight was cancelled again due to a flat tire (and they had to drive in a spare tire from LAX — in rush hour), I broke down. I had spent about an hour standing in line simply to find out information that was being relayed to everyone else via speaker. There was no TV with live updates, live flight change times, or any other related information. There was not even a sign up to indicate boarding groups. Hungry and tired, I lost it. I texted my Aunt that I was staying with during my time there and asked her to pick me up since the flight was now delayed another couple of hours.

My Aunt arrived and helped me find someone at the United Airline desk who would be willing to text me updates and notify me when it was time to come back (because the United App was not updating in real time). Upon leaving the airport and hearing my struggles, she immediately re-routed from the exit upstairs to the administrative desk. We requested to speak to someone and got the Assistant Director of Aviation for PSP. I shared my experience and frustration of lack of accessibility to information in real-time. I shared how I had to find ways to get the same information and how much time and energy it took. I shared how other airports have different ways of sharing this information and how it is helpful not only for DHH individuals but also for folks who have a hard time navigating airports. He pushed back, stating that the arrival/departure times are controlled by a 3rd party company. I explained that screen wasn’t the problem, but rather each flight and information from that desk. It was a long conversation but productive.

The next day, when back home, I discovered that my Aunt, who is a City Councilwoman in Oregon for her hometown, my Uncle, who resides in Palm Springs, and a close friend of mine who has family who resides in Palm Springs all submitted a letter on my behalf to Palm Springs City Council and the Mayor to request that accommodations be revisited due to lack of DHH accessibility and information at Palm Springs Airport. I immediately wrote my own account of the day’s incident, requested that they consider adding technology to improve communication and information accessibility for DHH adults (and all passengers), and offered my support in doing so. We each got a personalized response via email from the Interim Mayor of Palm Springs stating that she will look into it.

A negative experience (surely triggered by hunger and fatigue, but honestly who hasn’t been there?) was enriched by a community who saw the impact and frustration of one person. We were able to come together with a single message: Improve Accessibility at a small airport. If enough comments are made, and reinforcements are submitted, it can be heard and action can be taken. Resolution is always possible.