Please give me an aisle seat: The plea for sensory-friendly airports and airlines

“When you talk to someone who is not aware of or ignorant of autism about autism, they sure can make you look like an idiot, even though it should work the other way round.”

Visiting and travelling to a new place is both exhausting and exciting. The prospect of travelling to a foreign and unknown place is exhilarating in itself, I mean, the land is so vast, where do I even begin? It is for this reason I keep re-visiting the same countries (namely, Australia and Taiwan) over and over again for the ease of planning. The planning of the trip down to intricate details such as opening hours, dining locations and the means of local transport (frequencies, arrival and departure times). Even devising a Plan B for the unexpected (I don’t mind spontaneity if it’s part of the plan😉 ). And packing for the trip is laborious, I always worry I’d leave out something important (sometimes I did). And then of course, the flying, YES, THE FLYING. The way I see flying is that there is no gain (visiting a new place) without pain (stress of flying) and what goes up must come down. I hate flying (and I suspect many of us too) and it’s not just flying I hate, it is the whole process, the before, during and after the flight, the ride to the airport (with feelings of guilt and missing my cat) to arriving the airport, the checking-in, the queueing up for customs like we are in some kind of an assembly line, people knocking against my elbow, people speaking in varied tones and languages and because my turn is coming up, I can’t plug into my music and have to become a reluctant participant of everyone else’s conversations, then the wait to board the plane; then comes the flight itself, stuck in an enclosed space with poor ventilation, mismatch of body smells and (overpowering) perfume, food and air freshener, the rude glare of reading lights, praying hard not for a safe flight, but that the seat next to mine will be empty (please let it be empty), hoping there isn’t any passengers nearby with a crying child, that the passengers behind me would be considerate enough not to grab/knock/kick my chair, and the list goes on; and then waiting to alight and pass the immigration before I can finally heave a sigh of relief and breath again. In fact, just the thought of it is dreadful enough. For this reason I tend to travel to countries with a shorter flight distance and that since my studies in the UK, I’ve never been on a flight longer than 8-9 hours. I’ve always wanted to visit the US and Canada but it is a combination of the reasons above that stop me from doing so. After all, why do I want to put myself through the pain of a long-haul flight if for half the distance, I could travel to another country that I would enjoy just as much? If I was born in a big country, perhaps international air travel would not be much of a priority for me and I’ll be content to explore different parts of the country.

I’ve heard of autism-friendly airlines (American Airlines) and airports (Manchester Airport, UK) and I WISH MORE AIRLINES AND AIRPORTS ARE DOING THE SAME. I’m not sure how the best airport awards are judged but looking at their methodology, they have a category on “terminal comfort, ambience and design” as well as queuing times. I would like to see a separate category, if not a separate award, for the most sensory-friendly airports and airlines. Once I was checking in for a flight at the airport and requested for an aisle seat (which is my preferred seat for ease of getting out) but was told that all the aisle seats had been taken up and was assigned a window seat instead. I was closed to tears and nearly had a breakdown at the counter. Part of me wanted to create a scene but I also knew I wouldn’t get far with it and so I surmount what little energy I had remained to keep myself in control although I was crying out loud inside. I might have saved myself some stress if I paid the extras and chose my preferred seat in advance but coming from an earlier generation of travelling where you didn’t have to pay extras for selecting a seat in advance (certainly not for selecting a seat during online check-in), and being a cheapskate budget traveller, I can’t get pass the fact that by paying for a seat in advance, I am encouraging airlines to charge for facilities and services which was once provided for free. But as I grow older and my stress threshold lower, I’m thinking if I should forego some of my principles and just pay that extra in return for a less stressful travel experience.

The thing is if I did insist on an aisle seat or even make a request in advance for an aisle seat or seek assistance to board the plane earlier due to my autism, the problem I encounter is how on earth am I going to explain to the relevant staff, without making me sound like an idiot, that because of my autism, I’m requesting to board the plane early and if possible, I’d like an aisle seat (I’m not requesting for an upgrade or a seat with more legroom or even a seat near the exit row even though that’d be nice, all I’m requesting is an aisle seat, that would be helpful enough). Yes, that will not improve the ventilation or resolve the sensory issues but that would be helpful enough. My aim is not to create a stress-free environment, my aim is to reduce as much stress as possible by having an understanding environment. The truth is many airlines and airports are yet aware of the needs of individuals with autism and it is true that each of us on the spectrum has different needs so a window seat might work for some but for me, the ease of getting out is my priority as I dread to be stuck in enclosed confined spaces amongst people. But when you talk to someone who is not aware of or ignorant of autism about autism, they sure can make you look like an idiot, even though it should work the other way round. Ignorance is bliss, I guess. This is the plight I find myself in on occasions when I try (or think of trying) to ‘test’ the autism awareness of airlines. I appreciate that it might be difficult to accommodate everyone’s request and I’m not expecting everyone’s request to be accommodated, what I’m asking is awareness and understanding. For a start, educate airport and airline staff about autism and don’t make me feel like an idiot for trying to explain what autism is.

The precursor to writing this post is that I have an upcoming flight to visit my parents back home. After much thinking if I should check in for my flight in advance online or risk the long queue at the check-in counter, and whether it is worth paying that extra for a seat I preferred, miserly-me decided to check-in for my flight online and let the system randomly assigned a seat for me. To my dismay and horror (and some may say I deserve it), I was given not the aisle seat, not even the window seat, but the damn middle seat!!! Come on, what were the odds? (this is the first actually)😖 Now I’m just praying hard that it is not a full flight and that the seats next to mine better be empty or else…😭😭😭 What can I say, flying is stressful!

One thought on “Please give me an aisle seat: The plea for sensory-friendly airports and airlines

  1. Yes, finally, I’m not alone 🤓
    Planning in minute detail including time (I have my printed bullet listed travel plans plus maps, flights, trains, busses for at least 5 years back) and isle seats…
    The best I’ve learned to hunt for on planes is emergency door isle seats as they have bigger leg room 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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