Flying with Masks

The last time I boarded a plane was when I returned to Pittsburgh from my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in Atlanta – in October 2019.

Two days ago, I flew again. Only this time, everyone was masked (At least, the ones who followed regulations and cared about their fellow humans.). As someone who is deaf and depends on reading lips to communicate, I was nervous.

It didn’t help that a friend of mine recently had a horrible experience flying. Her husband wore a Kn95 FaceView mask so she could lipread him. He was told to take it off. Other passengers were wearing cloth masks or not wearing their masks properly, yet they weren’t confronted. Even a flight attendant often had her mask below her nose. Spirit refused to leave until her husband complied. Finally the pilot granted a “one-time exception to policy,” even though my friend and her family had followed policy. They were also harassed during the flight by one of the flight attendants. The whole experience was humiliating and infuriating.

Because I flew solo, I knew I wouldn’t have a similar encounter. But that also meant I was on my own communication-wise.

Thankfully, everything went relatively smoothly. Having pre-check helped. But when the TSA agent asked me to lower my mask so she could match my face to my license, I was too busy trying to pull up my boarding pass on Apple Wallet. When I glanced up, she looked exasperated. “I’m deaf and read lips,” I told her. She then gestured to pull down my mask.

My plan was to tell a Southwest employee once I got to the gate. I didn’t realize there was a counter between gates, so I picked a seat near my gate. Because it was a good seat, I figured I’d wait until someone showed up close to boarding.

The flight time kept changing, which got people talking. This resulted in an awkward interaction, but that can’t be avoided.

After a Southwest employee spoke into the microphone by the gate, I approached her. When I identified my deafness, she gestured to a piece of paper to ask if I wanted her to write. I told her I read lips and she could pull down her mask, which she did.

While in line waiting for pre-boarding to start, I noticed people staring at me. Then one man pointed behind me. I turned around to find an employee trying to get by. I don’t know why they hadn’t tapped me, or how long they’d been there. “I’m sorry, I’m deaf,” I said to her. I hope the others heard so they knew I wasn’t being rude.

The employee at the gate brought me and three others onto the plane. After they boarded, she pulled down her mask to let me know that she was going to tell the flight attendant about me. Then she told me I could sit anywhere except the exit row. I told the flight attendant that I read lips, and he said to just press the button if I needed him.

It was frustrating having to hear announcements without understanding what was being said – both in the airport and on the plane. Normally I’d summon up the courage to ask a seat mate, but with masks, forget it.

So, I definitely had some social anxiety (thanks, COVID, for bringing it into my life!), but I got through it. The destination was worth it!

And now I have to do this all over again next week…