New App to support visually impaired people at Heathrow Airport

The Aira app from Heathrow Airport

Late last year, I was really excited to see a press release from Heathrow talking about an app they were trialling to enable visually impaired people to be able to use the airport more independently.

Steven outside Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport

Like a lot of people, I find flying really stressful. I’m blind and hearing impaired and the whole environment (from security onwards) is really tricky to navigate around, plus it’s really noisy so communication can be challenging. All this can often mean that the process of checking in can take longer, thus leaving less time for important activities such as spending money in duty free and scoping out the nearest bar!  Even though you can book support through your airline, you are still reliant on this being put in place and working without a hitch, so anything that can give people more independence is to be welcomed.

I was really keen to experience the app and so I travelled to Heathrow to meet Nicole Day, Heathrow’s Passenger Services manager to find out more and, most excitingly of all, to have a go with the Aira app.

Steven holding his app enabled smartphone up to get help navigating Heathrow airport

How does it work?

The Aira app is free to download from the app store and works by connecting you in a video call with a trained agent who can provide guided assistance on demand and who can give advice on navigating through Heathrow and help on finding specific locations – including gates, special assistance facilities, retail outlets and restaurants. Using the camera on the passenger’s smartphone, the Aira agent is able to provide navigation information (such as advising of obstacles and reading signage). The Aira service has been a popular subscription service in the United States for some time and Heathrow have partnered with them to offer the service free of charge to customers using the airport.

Nicole said that so far, the feedback from passengers had been overwhelmingly positive and that Heathrow were happy with how the trial was going.

I was eager to put the app through its paces, and so, after downloading it, and registering my details (a really easy process). I placed my first call for assistance.

Steven placing a call for assistance using the app on his smartphone

The first thing to mention is that the the agents are all American, not a surprise considering the Aira app was developed in America but just something to be aware off. Because this was my first call, we did have to go through a bit of a process, just for the agent to clarify that I understood how the service worked and that I understood the app shouldn’t be used as a replacement for a mobility aid (such as a long cane or guide dog). Once this was done, I asked my super helpful Aira agent (who was called Marie) if she could assist me to find the disabled toilets. My Sense Communicator Guide stood well back so, I was completely on my own, relying solely on my cane and the help from Marie on the app.

Steven navigating his way via the person speaking via the app to the facilities.

Using the camera on my smartphone, Marie was able to pinpoint where I was in the airport (just by arrivals apparently…). She then proceeded to give me spoken instructions while I used my cane. She was able to tell me of any obstacles ahead of me (such as weary travellers or suitcases) enabling me to navigate around them. She was able to tell me useful landmarks along the route for me to find with my cane, like walls that I could follow. I’m not very good at judging distances, but I would say it was probably a good 5 minute walk from where I started to the disabled toilets including navigating through various doors and, as previously mentioned, past a variety of obstacles before reaching my final destination!

What did I think?

I was really impressed. Before visiting, I thought that it would be a really helpful app for some people but that it may not be something I would feel comfortable using. I’m not the most confident of cane users anyway and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about trusting someone to support me who was only using my phone camera. In the event I very quickly felt comfortable and confident that I would get to where I wanted to go. The Aira agents have clearly had extensive training and the instructions I was given where clear and concise and, most importantly of all, accurate. If Marie needed me to make adjustments to how I was holding the phone so help her to see my surroundings she explained very clearly what was needed. ‘Lift up your phone and pan ever so slightly to the left’. So, I went from not being sure if I would use a service like Aira to thinking that I’d have no problem using it if I was using Heathrow again in the future when going on holiday.

Steven holding phone up so the person communicating via the app can survey the scene.
Steven Morris

Author: Steven Morris

Technology Officer at Sense

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