Memphis airport adds technology to assist sight-impaired passengers

Memphis International Airport has teamed with technology company Aira to provide a new service to assist low-sight and blind passengers. With the help of a remote-connected concierge, a sight-challenged traveler can more easily navigate its terminals and concourses.

“Accessibility is a challenge for all sorts of businesses and navigating an airport can be stressful for all passengers. Aira provides an immediate solution that requires no technical or operational work by the airport,” said Kevin Phelan, Aira vice president of sales and marketing.

Now, instead of seeking assistance from airport personnel, a virtual concierge can guide them as they check their bags, get through security, find a restaurant and reach their gate.

“They walk you through the whole process,” said Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. Service began on October 20.

The services’ features don’t just begin and end at the airport door, either. For instance, it can connect a user to an Uber driver from their hotel, including helping them get to the vehicle or around any obstacle they may encounter.

“What I love about this technology, it gives someone who is sight-impaired or blind the ability to choose their own path. To choose what they want to do when they are in the airport for those two hours when they are waiting on a flight. It gives them the independence to do that without waiting on someone to help them,” said Brockman.

Like many emerging services, the process starts with downloading an app.

After enrolling, a kit is mailed that includes glasses and a wifi portal. When ready to use the service, the user are connected to a concierge.

”The concierge is somewhere in the country sitting at a bank of video streams. Enrollees receive a pair of glasses with a high-def camera with a wifi portal that links you directly to them (concierge),” said Brockman.

Like a cellphone plan, minutes can be purchased in limited or unlimited amounts. This is done through the concierge. Users of the plan receive personal wifi access at the airport via the Aira portal. 

The offering at the Memphis International Airport is exceptional because it is offered at no cost to passengers. 

“Now, you come to my airport and cross the geofence – you are now using our minutes and not yours. That way customers keep their minutes for when they get to their destination. They can use our minutes at the airport,” said Brockman.

A geofence is a wireless signal perimeter. When crossed, a signal is picked up on a cellphone or device.

In addition to his role at Memphis International, he serves as Chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives. Along with the title goes the task of an in-studio video presentation to all members. Brockman’s topic was on how technology will change air travel.

“Of course, the big ones are unmanned aircraft, unmanned vehicles, drones, driverless cars, so these were a large piece of the studio session we did,” said Brockman.

One of the particpants in the video session was Aira, which came from AAAE’s accelerator program. Impressed with the service’s potential, Brockman spoke with Phelan.

“After that conversation I thought, ‘This is awesome, this is exactly what I want to do at the Memphis Airport,” said Brockman.

After requesting Aira’s agreement for the program, its marketability and overall feasibility were vetted.

“What they have done is develop technology that allows someone who is sight impaired or blind to experience Memphis Airport with the same independence as any other passenger,” said Brockman.

Aira’s service has just begun, but gaps in service are already being filled. For instance, plans are being made to have glasses available on site in case a member’s pair isn’t available or they haven’t received them yet.

Its inclusion lines up with the airport’s planned modernization of some facilities. Another advancement that is in the works is a hearing loop. This technology allows announcements to go directly to a hearing-impaired visitor’s hearing device while cancelling out ambient noises.

While just in its infancy with sample sizes too small for evaluation, Aria’s virtual concierge service has earned praise from an early adopter.

“Aira is awesome in airports. I love the freedom of finding my gate. I also have used it to find restrooms, restaurants and of course for those long layovers a charging port at my gate. Then once at baggage claim they have helped me find my bag when I forgot to bring my luggage locator,” said Tiffany Manosh.

Available in all 50 states for individuals, Phelan believes the concierge model can become a commonplace service that can be easily adopted elsewhere.

“Any airport can do this now and can become instantly accessible for blind and low vision passengers,” said Phelan.

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