April 9, 2018 § 36 Comments
For several weeks I have been contacted by colleagues who provide their services as interpreters in the health sector of the United States. They have all expressed the same sense of confusion, anguish, anger, and uncertainty many of us have noticed in social media and professional forums on line.
This environment started after the decision by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) to not renew the accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) effective January 1, 2018, and it ballooned after the video of a speech during the California Healthcare Interpreters Association (CHIA) annual conference in Irvine, California in early March was uploaded to the web and watched by interpreters all over the world. Apparently, most interpreters were upset about four things: (1) The decision to terminate the NCCA accreditation; (2) That many learned of this decision by the NBCMI at this conference; (3) That the NBCMI authorities did not informed those candidates scheduled to take the certification exam that the exam they would be taking in 2018, although the same test taken by interpreters certified in the past, was being offered after the Board had quit their accreditation of their Spanish language interpreter certification program by the NCCA; and (4) That many did not like NBCMI’s decision to change the wording on their website portal to show in a casual way, hidden in the text, or at least not highlighted, that they had not renewed said accreditation, and the unofficial explanations and assurances by apparently some people associated with NBCMI that such change would not impact their certification.
I am a veteran of the profession, but like many of you, even though I have interpreted my share of medical events as a conference interpreter, I have never been a healthcare interpreter. Let me explain the healthcare interpreting scenario in the United States.
Healthcare interpreting is an essential part of the health sector in modern society, but despite this and the need to elevate this service to a professional level, healthcare interpreting had a later start than other community-based fields of interpreting like court interpreting.
The United States was no exception, until finally, a few years ago, two organizations took the lead towards the professionalization of the field. Embracing the basic principles and values of the certification program the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) had written about, the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters developed and implemented two interpreter certification programs. Both understood the overwhelming need to certify interpreters in the most widely spoken foreign languages in the United States, and they both developed a program for interpreter certification in Spanish (there are other languages now. Please visit their websites to learn about the languages covered by each program).
Unlike court interpreting, which developed certification programs sanctioned by the government at its different levels (federal, state, and initially sometimes local), the healthcare sector had no government authority sanctioning the validity of its certifications; and even though this brought healthcare interpreters a professional freedom enjoyed by other professionals like physicians and lawyers, and denied to court interpreters who have no control over the administration of their certification exams, it also created an uncertainty about the validity of their interpreter certification programs.
Because in a private sector-oriented society like the U.S., the situation healthcare interpreter certification programs were facing is not the exception, but the rule, there is a reputable trustworthy entity that solves this problem: The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE).
The Institute for Credentialing Excellence, or ICE, is a professional membership association that provides education, networking, and other resources for organizations and individuals who work in and serve the credentialing industry. ICE is a leading developer of standards for certification and certificate programs and it is both, a provider of and a clearinghouse for information on trends in certification, test development and delivery, assessment-based certificate programs, and other information relevant to the credentialing community. ICE created the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) in 1987.
The NCAA’s Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs, which were created in the mid-1970s, were the first standards developed by the credentialing industry for professional certification programs. The NCCA Standards were developed to help ensure the health, welfare, and safety of the public. They highlight the essential elements of a high-quality program.
The NCCA standards follow The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999) and are applicable to all professions and industries. Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products and not the content; therefore, the Standards are applicable to all professions and industries. Program content validity is demonstrated with a comprehensive job analysis conducted and analyzed by experts, with data gathered from stakeholders in the occupation or industry.
NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations including nurses, automotive professionals, respiratory therapists, counselors, emergency technicians, crane operators and more. To date, NCCA has accredited approximately 330 programs from over 130 organizations.
Accreditation for professional or personnel certification programs provides impartial, third-party validation that your program has met recognized national and international credentialing industry standards for development, implementation, and maintenance of certification programs. This solved the problem for both programs and two certification programs were born:
The Certified Healthcare Interpreter credential (CHI) developed by the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin in 2 steps: First, a core exam consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions, to be answered in English, on medical terminology, healthcare scenarios and ethics; and to those who pass the core exam, an interpreting exam that tests the candidate’s skill on sight and written translation, and simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.
The Medical Interpreter credential (CMI) developed by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) that offers a certification exam in Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Vietnamese to those who pass (with a score of 70 percent, 80 percent in Mandarin) an interpreting exam that tests skills on sight translation and consecutive interpreting (no simultaneous interpreting or written translation).
Besides competing for interpreter candidates in the same market, both programs needed to convince healthcare providers, insurance companies, patients, and attorneys, that their credentials were reliable, trustworthy, and standard. They started an intensive and successful education campaign that used the NCCA accreditation as one of its most valuable resources.
Even today, CCHI’s website proclaims the validity of its program and skill of its certified healthcare interpreters:
“…Just as healthcare interpreters work hard to get credentialed as “certified healthcare interpreters,” certification programs can also “get certified!” The process is called “accreditation” and, today, it is administered by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the accreditation arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). Accreditation is the process by which a credentialing or educational program is evaluated against defined standards by a third party and is awarded recognition when found in compliance with these standards. It’s more than just a voluntary membership in an association. Accreditation (and renewal of accreditation) involves a rigorous process that ensures the quality of examinations and certification offered by organizations like CCHI. In fact, NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations, including nurses, pharmacists, counselors, EMTs, HR professionals, defense security specialists, and more. CCHI is proud to represent the healthcare interpreter profession as equal among other allied health professions…today, CCHI is proud to offer the only nationally accredited certifications in the interpreting industry. NCCA’s accreditation validates all aspects of CCHI’s certification programs and CCHI as a certifying body…”
To this day NCCA accreditation continues to be a crucial element of the CCHI program.
Apparently, the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) disagrees with this principle, and even though their website lacks detailed explanations or reasons for the decision not to renew accreditation; some colleagues claim they have unofficially argued that continuing NCCA accreditation is unnecessary because their program is now well-established, the accreditation only covered the Spanish certification program, and their exams have not changed from the ones offered during the accreditation era. Several interpreters have indicated that NBCMI claims that a renewal was too expensive; that they had spent fifty thousand dollars on the initial accreditation, and that their Board had directed those financial resources to the development and administration of certification exams in other languages; activity that would be more profitable.
On its official website, NBCMI addresses its decision to end NCCA accreditation:
“…Prior to 2018, the Spanish CMI certificate was subjected to an additional level of NCCA accreditation, but while the National Board remains a member of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence (ICE), each of the National Board programs have been standardized to ensure the CMI certification in each offered language best meets or exceeds nationally accepted standards, including transparency, inclusion, and access…”
It mentions they continue to be members of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), the parent entity of NCCA, and adds a self-serving statement where they praise their own CMI certification. They emphasize their continued ICE membership adding this statement to their official website:
“…As a proud member of ICE, we stay informed on best practices in developing and administering quality certification [certificate] programs so that we may better serve you…”
This could be a simple statement of facts, but unfortunately, it could also be misunderstood by some who may think that continued ICE membership affects their CMI program after January 1, 2018.
ICE clearly tells us what membership means:
“…An organization may join ICE at any time whether or not it has any programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE…”
Membership in ICE does not mean that an organization or any of its credentialing programs have been accredited, approved, or otherwise endorsed by ICE. We can see this means more than no more accreditation. According to ICE itself, membership means no approval or any other endorsements.
As I write this post, my only goal is for NBCMI to published a written detailed explanation of the reasons they abandoned the NCCA accreditation, the potential consequences this decision can bring to certified medical interpreters, and why candidates scheduled to take the exam in 2018 were not informed of this important change so they could decide to either pursue the CMI certification or perhaps take the CHI exam instead. Spanish language CMI interpreters have a right to know why a certification exam after the NCCA accreditation ended has the same cost as the one offered when the accreditation was in place. How does a business decision to add more languages to the certification program benefit the Spanish language CMIs whose credentialing program lost NCCA accreditation? So far, NBCMI has limited its answer to a statement posted on their newsletter that repeats what they previously said about the validity of the exam and CMI certification, but the explanation of the reasons to discontinue the accreditation have not been disclosed. Dismissing social media as myths and misinformation does not answer the questions so many interpreters want answered.
Some changes have already been impacting those who hold a CMI certification: Some institutions stopped reimbursing the certification exam fee to certification candidates taking the exam in 2018. It has been reported that some clients are now preferring those interpreters holding a CHI certification over a CMI credential; and, a good possibility is that in the future, CMI credentials will be questioned and tested by attorneys who will cross-examine NBCMI certified medical interpreters in the presence of a jury during a medical malpractice trial.
NBCMI needs to explain why NCCA accreditation went from being something they were proud of a few years ago to something no longer needed:
“…The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) is pleased to announce that its Certified Medical Interpreter (CMI) program has been accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), thus joining an elite group of certifying bodies dedicated to public protection and excellence in certification… NCCA accreditation was one of the objectives the National Board set for itself at the very outset…” (NBCMI press release dated January 18, 2013 at Miami Beach Convention Center)
These are valid questions we hope NBCMI will officially address, and they are all legitimate reasons in a free market economy like the United States’ for any interpreter working on the healthcare sector to think very carefully about which one of the two certifications she or he should hold. Let’s hope that at the end of all the confusion and uncertainty the answer is either one of the certifications, but as of today, we do not know if that will be the case, even if both certifications were equally recognized, because one continues to have an accredited certification program and the other one does not. Many of our colleagues would like to know the reason for the changes that both, NBCMI and its parent organization IMIA experienced just now: a new president for NBCMI (we wish her well) and the resignation of IMIA’s president-elect before he officially took office. Interpreters want to know if these changes at this confusing times are related to the decision to end accreditation, or it is just a coincidence.
I now invite you to share your thoughts on this issue, and please, do not write personal attacks, and unless you are officially commenting on behalf of NBCMI, please abstain from sending surrogate comments defending the Board.
March 8, 2017 § 3 Comments
For several months I have received phone calls and emails from some of our healthcare interpreter colleagues in the United States complaining about the same situation: Unscrupulous interpreting agencies asking them to work for laughable fees. I know this is not breaking news to you; we all run from time to time into these glorious representatives of the “industry”. What makes this situation different, and motivated me to write this post, are the shameless tactics used by these agencies’ recruiters. They have decided that giving the interpreter a guilt trip will soften us up enough to work for a miserable fee that will not even pay for gas and parking, or for the babysitter.
Oftentimes when interpreters provide their fee schedule for healthcare interpreting services, these programmers, recruiters, project managers, or whatever may be their official title in that particular agency, throw the ball right back in the interpreter’s court, not to negotiate a professional fee that is fair considering the complexity of the service requested, but for the interpreter to feel awful about turning down an assignment. The argument goes like this: “…but the patient does not speak English and he is really sick… we cannot afford the fee you requested; his condition will get worse unless you help him… the patient really needs you…” Another version they use brings up the issue of all patients’ right to an interpreter derived from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. In that case, the agency representative would add something like: “…but you know these people must have an interpreter if they don’t speak English, and you are the only one in town. We all need to comply with the law. It is your duty as a healthcare interpreter. You cannot use the fee as an excuse…” To make a long story short, these agencies are passing the ball to the interpreter through guilt trips and fear.
The good thing, dear colleagues, is that interpreters are not obligated to provide professional services under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The fact that there may not be an interpreter to assist the patient may be something awful, but it is not your problem. Let me explain:
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 USC Section 200d et seq. prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin (including language, according to President Clinton’s Executive Order No. 13166, Aug. 11, 2000, 65 F.R. 50121) in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other form of federal financial assistance. The term “program or activity” and the term “program” mean all of the operations of a department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or of a local government; or the entity of such State or local government that distributes such assistance and each such department or agency (and each other State or local government entity) to which the assistance is extended, in the case of assistance to a State or local government. It also includes colleges, universities, or a public system of higher education; and a corporation, partnership, or other private organization, or an entire sole proprietorship if assistance is extended to such corporation, partnership, private organization, or sole proprietorship as a whole, or if it is principally engaged in the business of providing health care, or social services.
Therefore, it is the hospital who has the obligation to provide the interpreter. Not you. In fact it is not the interpreting agency’s legal obligation either. Federal funds and other types of assistance are very important to hospitals and universities for research and other purposes. It is extremely unlikely that one of these institutions would risk losing those resources just because they are unwilling to pay the healthcare interpreter’s professional fee.
If the interpreter is contacted by an agency, it means that said company has a contractual relationship with the hospital or medical institution to provide interpreters in order to comply with the mandate of Title VI. The agency is getting paid by the hospital, but they now want to profit a little more at the expense of the interpreter. When an agency has this plan of action to be more profitable, they direct their agents to generate the highest profit possible. This is when they resort to despicable practices like the ones described above.
It is important that we as interpreters understand the law, and recognize these horrible practices. It is also essential that we take action in two different ways: (1) Always turn down these agencies, and (2) Let the hospital know that their contractor agency is jeopardizing the hospital’s Title VI compliance by scaring away the professional interpreters because of low interpreting fees and disgusting practices such as these guilt trips. I am sure that hospital administrators will put an end to this “activities” very quickly.
I now invite you to share with the rest of us any experiences like the ones above that you, or another colleague had with an agency, and what action you took to stop this from happening again.
March 19, 2015 § 4 Comments
Imagine that you just received a phone call from a very prestigious organization that wants to hire you to interpret a conference in Tokyo next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The subject matter is very interesting and the fee is extraordinaire. For a moment you stop to take it all in, smile, take a deep breath, and then it suddenly hits you: You have to decline the assignment because a few minutes earlier you took another job with your most consistent, best-paying client who retained you to interpret a conference on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the same week in Chicago. You hang up the phone and wonder why this is happening to you once again. Why do all good assignments have to be so close in time and so far in space from each other? I am sure the scenario sounds familiar to all of you, because at one time or another, we all face these situations and are forced to make choices. It is obvious that you have to fulfill your contractual obligation to the client who has hired you to interpret in Chicago from Tuesday to Thursday. It is also evident that you needed to turn down the Tokyo assignment because it would take you a full day of nothing but traveling to get to Japan from the United States. Even with the time change you do not have that extra day needed to travel, because, assuming that you make it to Tokyo on Friday afternoon, by the time you get from Narita Airport to the conference venue, it will be too late; never mind the fact that you would be exhausted and in no shape to work three full days at the conference without any rest or time to adjust to the time change. The events and places may be different, but until recently, that has been the story of our professional lives. Every time you think of these missed opportunities you fantasize about doing both events.
What if I tell you that you can do both conferences without changing any dates, and therefore, keeping both clients happy and doubling your income? It is possible! In fact, I have done it myself.
On Tuesday morning you wake up in Chicago, go to the event venue and do your job. The same thing happens on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, very early on Friday morning, because of the time change, you either go to a local studio in Chicago, or sit in front of your computer at home, and do a remote interpretation of the event in Tokyo. Afterwards, because you will be exhausted, you go home and rest until the following early morning when you will remotely interpret again. You do the same for three days.
The result of this technological advantage is that you can do something that until recently was impossible. This is a wonderful example of how technology can help the interpreter. You will make twice as much money that week, because you will work two full conferences, you will not have “dead time” while traveling to and from the venue (usually the day before and the day after the event, and sometimes even longer) and you will keep all your clients happy because you took care of them all. Remember, they wanted you to do the job, not just any interpreter. At the same time the client in Tokyo in this case, ends up a winner, because they didn’t just hire the ideal interpreter for the job, they also spent less money to get you. Yes, my friends and colleagues, the organizers will save money because they will not have to pay for your travel expenses and they will not need to pay you a professional fee for the traveling days (usually at least half of your full-day fee). Everybody wins! As interpreters, we love this kind of technology that helps everybody. You make more money because of the two separate assignments that you will cover, and the organizers will save money as I highlighted above.
We as interpreters want new technology in our professional lives. We cannot deny the benefit of having an interpreter providing services in a remote hospital’s emergency room while she is physically hundreds of miles away from the patient. We cannot argue with the advantage of being able to interpret a trade negotiation between two or more parties who are virtually sitting at the same table even though they are physically in another part of the planet. We cannot ignore the positive outcome of a legal investigation when the investigator can interview a witness in a foreign country while the interpreter is here at home saving the client time and money.
That is the bright side of what is happening right now. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side that we as interpreters have to guard against.
It is a reality that this new technology costs money. It is not cheap, and for the most part, the ones who can afford it, at least on a bigger scale, are the huge multinational language service providers who have recognized all the advantages mentioned above, but for whatever reason, instead of fostering a professional environment where my example above can become the rule instead of the exception, they have seen the new technology as a way to increase their earnings by lowering the professional fees they pay to the interpreters.
It is of great concern to see how some professional interpreter organizations have been infiltrated by these multinational language service providers. It is discouraging to look at a conference program and realize how these entities are paying for everything the interpreter will hear or see at the event. These agencies turn into big corporate sponsors and attend the event with a goal of recruiting as many interpreters as possible, for the smallest amount of money that they can convince them to accept. Just a few weeks ago during a panel discussion at an interpreter conference in the United States, the association invited the CEO of one of these multinational language service providers to moderate the debate, and for that matter, to decide what questions were going to be asked. This individual is not even an interpreter. The real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case, there have been other events, and there are others already planned where the gigantic presence of these conglomerates creates, at the very least, the impression that they decide everything that will be happening at the conference.
As professional interpreters we must be vigilant and alert. Some of these corporations are now propagating on the internet a new strategy where these entities are separating themselves from the machine translation “reputation” by making it clear, to those naïve interpreters who want to listen, that the technology they are using is not to replace the human interpreter, that it is to help interpreters do their job; part of the argument states that thanks to this new technology, interpreters will not need to leave home to do their job, that they will not need to “waste” time going to work or waiting, sometimes for a long time, to interpret a case at the hospital or the courtroom. They argue that thanks to this technology, interpreters will only spend a few minutes interpreting, leaving them free to do whatever they want to do with the rest of their time. Of course, you need to dig deeper to see that they are really saying that with the new technology, they will only pay the interpreter for the services rendered by the minute. In other words, their interpretation of the technological developments is that they can save money, but the interpreter is not invited to the party. My example at the beginning of this post is not an option for most of these multinational language service providers. This is what we have to guard against so that we do not end up making money for 20 minutes of interpreting a day.
Obviously, as you all know, these minute-based fees are ridiculously low, and therefore unappealing to good interpreters. The agencies are ready for this contingency as well. After the exodus of good interpreters, they will continue to advertise their services as provided by “top quality interpreters” because they will mask the lack of professional talent with their state-of-the-art technology. That is where we, as the real professional interpreters, need to educate the consumer, our client, so they see the difference between a good professional interpreter and a paraprofessional who is willing to work for a little more than the minimum wage. These “mass-produced” so-called interpreter services will be the equivalent of a hamburger at a fast food restaurant: mass-produced, frozen, tasteless, odorless, and cheap. We all need to point this out to the world, even those of us who never work for these multinational service providers, because unless we do so, they will grow and reproduce, and sooner or later they will show up in your market or field of practice. Remember, they have a right to be in business and make a profit for their shareholders, but we also have a right to fight for our share of the market by giving the necessary tools to the consumers (our clients) so they can decide what kind of a meal they want to serve at their business table. I invite you to share your opinion on this very serious issue with the rest of us.
October 5, 2012 § 7 Comments
Durante el verano dedico buena parte de mi tiempo a la enseñanza de nuestra profesión; es durante estos meses del año que muchos estados de la Unión Americana concluyen su ciclo fiscal y por lo tanto programan talleres y presentaciones para satisfacer sus requisitos de educación continua ya sea al final o al inicio de su año fiscal.
Durante mi viajar por el país impartiendo estas clases me percaté de un fenómeno relativamente nuevo y que se ha ido acentuando en los últimos dos o tres años: Cada vez son más los intérpretes médicos que acuden a estos cursos anteriormente aprovechados exclusivamente por intérpretes judiciales. Al concluir una ponencia, o durante un descanso, yo acostumbro platicar con los estudiantes y es así que me he enterado que muchos de ellos toman estas clases primordialmente dirigidas a los intérpretes que trabajan en los tribunales no porque desean convertirse en intérpretes jurídicos, lo hacen para estudiar, practicar y aprender con la meta de presentar y aprobar uno de los exámenes de interpretación médica.
Independientemente de lo encomiable que resulta la dedicación de estos colegas, me he dado cuenta del deseo que tienen de profesionalizar su ramo de la interpretación. Enhorabuena porque el campo médico es bien difícil, yo lo sé bien debido a las conferencias médicas que he interpretado durante mi carrera. Sin embargo, al charlar con estos intérpretes médicos, también me doy cuenta que mientras ellos estudian y se esfuerzan por capacitarse, el ejercicio de su especialidad profesional está en gran parte monopolizado por agencias de interpretación que tienen contratos de exclusividad con los hospitales, cobran bien por el servicio prestado, y pagan sumas irrisorias y desproporcionadamente bajas a los intérpretes que contratan. Por lo que los colegas me cuentan, me he enterado que un intérprete médico no puede trabajar en los hospitales a menos que lo haga a través de una de estas agencias. Inmediatamente la pregunta llega a mi mente: ¿Tanto estudiar, tanto esforzarse para ganar una baba de perico mientras la agencia está ganando dinero a carretadas? Algo no parece correcto.
La experiencia que conozco y con la cual encuentro un punto de referencia es la de la interpretación judicial ya que las agencias que trabajan con intérpretes de conferencia, al menos las buenas y más conocidas, pagan bien y tratan al colega con respeto. Yo recuerdo casos en interpretación judicial cuando el intérprete no podía contratar directamente con el juzgado o con los abogados. Si quería trabajar solo tenía una opción: la agencia. Recuerdo que así era, y por cierto con resultados nefastos de explotación y mediocridad en parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos donde hasta hace no mucho tiempo los intérpretes no trabajaban directamente para los tribunales ni negociaban directamente con los bufetes jurídicos. Platicando con mis colegas sé que este ”sistema” sigue imperando en algunos estados. El ejemplo más palpable de poca paga y mediocridad en muchos (agrego que no todos) quienes prestan sus servicios en el campo jurídico lo seguimos encontrando hasta la fecha en los juzgados administrativos de migración.
La pregunta entonces queda: ¿Qué deben hacer estos intérpretes médicos capaces, entusiasmados, motivados y profesionales para recuperar su campo profesional y de esa manera justificar (para ellos, no para doctores, pacientes o compañías de seguros) el requisito de la certificación médica? Me gustaría escuchar sus opiniones, especialmente las de aquellos que están en esta situación. Les pido que incluyan sus comentarios y que se enfoquen al tema de este artículo: la interpretación médica como rehén de las agencias. Ya dejaremos para otro día la disyuntiva de que existan dos certificaciones médicas y aún no haya uniformidad ni consenso respecto a este tema.
August 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
Unlike other professions where a person works in an office, a hospital, or a school, we as interpreters work wherever there are people in need to communicate. Our “job description” includes work in many courtrooms and law offices for the court interpreter, services in many hospitals and doctor’s offices for medical interpreters, participation in many events that take place at schools, community centers, and churches for the community interpreter, and so on.
Sometimes court interpreters and interpretation instructors have to travel out of town to do their job, and most of the time conference interpreters work hundreds of miles from their home.
Last year I was on the road for work 240 days, and when you travel so much, it is a fact that you will spend countless hours at the airport. Because we spend a significant part of our lives in these facilities, we have no choice but to learn how to “live a life” as comfortable and normal as possible in a place designed for a few hours’ stay. My tips for a good experience at the airport are as follows:
(1) Always check in on line. Get boarding passes, and if needed, pay for your luggage ahead of time. This will allow more time away from the airport as you can arrive later and get the job done. In my case, I do this so I can spend more time with friends or enjoy a few more minutes of sleep in the hotel room before I head to the airport.
(2) Become a member of a frequent flyer club, and always pay with a credit card that gives you miles. If possible, get a credit card that gets you priority airport security lines and priority boarding, even when traveling economy. I have discovered that to me, the biggest benefit of being a frequent flyer is the possibility to upgrade a seat when the client only paid for economy.
(3) Get a membership to an airline club. This will let you relax at the airport and enjoy a drink at a less crowded bar, workout at the club’s gym, grab a bite to eat, and most importantly: You will have a place to shower and change after a long trip or before a long overnight flight after a long day of interpreting. Not all clubs offer this service so it would be a good idea to do your homework before booking a reservation. What a difference it makes to shower in Honolulu after a flight from the Midwest before going straight from the airport to a booth at the convention center! A shower at Tokyo Narita airport helps me to sleep better during the long flight to Chicago.
(4) If there is no time to go to the airline club, or there is none, find a bar with a friendly bartender and an internet connection. Sioux Falls South Dakota’s airport has no airline clubs, but has a friendly bar. La Guardia has a bar next to the Southwest Airlines gates that serves the best Bloody Mary. The Albuquerque New Mexico Sunport has excellent free Wi-Fi all over the airport.
(5) When you take food on the plane, do not take chain restaurant food. Find the good local restaurant at the airport and take that meal with you. To me it is essential to get Rick Bayless at O’Hare in Chicago, sushi to go when flying from San Francisco, or Texas BBQ at Houston Bush Intercontinental. Yum!
(6) If you are a smoker (like I used to be) you will enjoy a long flight a lot more if you take nicotine gum with you. You will get your fix and your airplane neighbors will appreciate it.
(7) If the client is willing to pay for it, or if you can upgrade with miles, always go for business class or at least extra leg room seats. The best economy seats are window seats. Nobody will ask you to move during the flight whether you are going to work or sleep. If you are flying a regional jet, then get the “lonely” seat on the left row (unless your briefcase is too big as the space under the seat in front of you is smaller than across the hallway) If you have a tight connection (and I advise against it if possible) get your seat towards the front of the plane or near the gate on those big planes where you board at the middle.
(8) When available, always pick the newer and larger plane as they are more comfortable. A Boeing 777 is always better than a Boeing 757 and many times they both serve the same route. Do your research. Also, if possible, get the flight that goes to the airport closer to your event. There are many cities with two or more airports, and a closer airport means less time on the airport shuttle or taxi and more time at the hotel. Usually older airports are closer to the city. Many of them are serviced by low-budget air carriers only.
(9) Unless your schedule is very tight, always do check in luggage. Only take your computer and overnight essentials in a carry on bag.
(10) Finally, read the airline magazine! Many times you will find a good referral to a restaurant or local attraction, and yes, they have some good sales every once in a while. I even “practice” my Spanish with the Spanish magazine on board of United or American.
I hope you found some of these tips useful. I encourage you to use them on your next interpretation assignment, and if your interpreter career does not take you out of town that often, try them on your next vacation. Finally, as a constant traveler, I am always open to new suggestions. I would greatly appreciate your tips to make my travels more enjoyable and stress-free.