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A relative will visit me in Connecticut. She does not speak English. She will arrive at JFK terminal 7 and transfer to JetBlue terminal 5. How will she navigate the airport?

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  • 46
    What language does she speak? Sep 26 at 2:04
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    An important thing here is how much experience she has with travel. As an experienced traveler I would have no qualms about going through an airport where I don't know the language, but it can be pretty daunting for someone not used to it. Sep 26 at 2:22
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    A printout of her itinerary in English could be worth a lot -- if she gets lost, showing this to an airport staff member will get her pointed in the right direction.
    – ajd
    Sep 26 at 3:35
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    Are both flights on the same ticket? Can she read signs in the Latin alphabet (even if she doesn’t understand them, but can at least identify words given to her in advance)?
    – jcaron
    Sep 26 at 5:37
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    guys you just call ahead and state that the passenger needs assistance with the connection, happens constantly dozens of times on all flights
    – Fattie
    Sep 27 at 11:17

3 Answers 3

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You need to talk to the airline. Ask for wheelchair assistance for the transit so she doesn't need to navigate at all. Anyone can ask for such assistance, there is no requirement to show proof of disability. Also, tell the airline she doesn't speak the language. They will deal with it. Also make sure to she has a phone at hand where she can call you for help but explain to her not to use it when talking to the border agent without asking for permission.

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    Since OP hasn't mentioned any disability, requesting wheelchair assistance seems more likely to cause confusion and embarrassment .
    – MJeffryes
    Sep 26 at 9:10
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    @MJeffryes my non-disabled mother in law who speaks neither German nor English had a very tight connection in Vienna. I called Austrian to ask them if it would be possible to change the flights to give her more time in Vienna to make the connection. They advised that she request wheelchair assistance (though I think they called it "mobility service" or something like that, which is arguably more appropriate even if her mobility was limited more by language than anything else). She did, and she made the connection. If the airline advises it, there's no need to fear confusion or embarrassment.
    – phoog
    Sep 26 at 10:11
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    @MJeffryes indeed, I was skeptical until the airline agent suggested it. I would do the same thing here: call the airline and be up front with my concerns. There's a good chance they will suggest it too.
    – phoog
    Sep 26 at 10:16
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    It doesn't have to be wheelchair assistance specifically, airport staff is used to providing assistance for all kinds of other reasons, for example to unaccompanied minors (who are in a very similar situation to OP's relative).
    – TooTea
    Sep 26 at 11:03
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    I read this idea from the social media of a Delta pilot. I trust they know what they are doing.
    – chx
    Sep 26 at 11:07
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This is very dependent on what languages she does speak, and what her level of experience travelling is.

In particular, if she speaks Spanish and is not completely new to traveling, she should be fine. JFK (like most other major US airports) has essentially all of their major signage in (at least) English and Spanish, should have enough bilingual English/Spanish speakers on-hand to make dealing with entry control and airport security a non-issue, and likely has enough staff who speak Spanish that she could easily find someone to assist her if she needs help.

Barring that specific case though, talk to the airline about this. They will likely suggest ‘mobility assistance’, which usually translates to them having a wheelchair waiting for you at the end of the jetway just inside the gate, and may even be able to have an employee with at least a basic level of proficiency in whatever language your relative speaks (this is more likely to be the case if it’s a relatively widely spoken language like Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Portuguese, or French). Note that you almost certainly want to ask about this for each airport stateside, as you will probably not be able to go past security yourself to assist her at whatever airport you are meeting her at.

It’s extremely important here that you tell the airline why she needs this assistance. By notifying the airline ahead of time that she does not speak English, they should in turn be able to notify entry control at JFK so that they can have an appropriate translator immediately available when she gets there, which will significantly reduce the time she needs to spend dealing with entry control and security (and also the chance that she gets pulled aside for additional screening), in turn reducing the chances that she will miss her connection.

Additionally, encourage her to have a phone handy to call you if she needs assistance (though warn her not to do so without asking permission when dealing with entry control).

Beyond all of that, you can also find terminal maps for most major airports online without too much difficulty. I’ve personally found it very helpful to study these a bit ahead of time when I’m going to be transferring through an airport I’ve never been to before, as that ensures I at least have a general idea of where I’m going.

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It's definitely a good idea to speak to the Arline, but it's hard to say how much they can/will help.

Things you can do to prepare:

  1. Write a detailed list of all the individual steps your relative has to do. This will depend on this is booked as a single ticket (good) or two separate tickets (bad idea). List all steps: immigration (ESTA or not), baggage claim, customs, recheck, terminal transfer, security, go to gate, board. .
  2. Prepare a phrase translator: a sheet of paper that shows common sentences in both languages so she can just point to one and have someone else read "I don't speak English", "Where is the bathroom" "How do I get to Terminal 5", etc.
  3. Put google translate (or similar) on her device. Make sure she knows how to use it. She is technically not allowed to use device in immigration, but she can ask for permission (using the phrase translator rom step 2)
  4. Reach out to JFK customer service: airportcustomercare@panynj.gov

This is not an easy transfer to make especially if these are separate tickets. If the traveler has little travel experience you can consider enlisting a "airport concierge" service. These are not cheap though and I don't know whether they are allowed to operate in the immigration/customs area.

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