passenger experience

New tech makes airports friendlier for blind travelers

Courtesy AIRA

My ‘At the Airport’ column on USA TODAY this month is about Aira, a new service that makes airports more accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Here’s a slightly edited version of that column. 

Airports around the country are beginning to offer travelers an augmented reality service that uses Google glass-style technology or a smartphone app to offer greater mobility and independence to blind passengers and those with low vision.

And, for now, airports offering the service are doing so for free.

How it works: off-site eyes

San Diego-based Aira offers a paid subscription service that provides blind and low vision customers smart glasses and smartphone software that connectsto remote live agents who use the cameras on the glasses or the smartphone to see what’s around the user and offer guidance.

Subscribers (Aira calls them ‘explorers’) can call on a remote agent to have them help with anything from tasks in the home, grocery shopping or traveling around the world.

“I’ve had help identifying receipts and papers on my desk, identifying the colors of things in my wardrobe and reading labels on spices if I’ve been smelling too many spices and my nose is tired, ” said Christine Ha, an Aira advisory board member.

Ha has also used the Aira service at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental which, along with Houston Hobby, Memphis International, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Seattle-Tacoma International, Spokane International and (soon) others, picks up the per-minute costs associated with using the Aira app or subscription service in the terminals.

“Many, but not all, airport employees are well trained to help people with vision impairments,” said Ha “But I like to be independent and find that Aira agents can pull up airport maps and serve as a virtual concierge, talking in my ear and describing what’s around,” including shops and restaurants, restrooms, gate hold areas and art.

The Aira service was not specifically designed for use in airports, but users been telling the company how their experience at airports has been transformed.

“We learned that at airports, visually impaired travelers often have to call ahead for assistance and might be met at the curb by someone who puts them in a wheelchair and just delivers them to their gate,” said Kevin Phelan, Aira’s Aviation Lead and head of Sales. “This service allows users to be independent and enjoy the airport like everyone else. So, we’ve been meeting with airports to let them know this service exists.”

Airports adopt Aira

Airports offering the Aira service for free see it as a customer service.

The Houston Airport System, which operates Hobby Airport and George Bush Intercontinental, chose to participate as part of its goal “To be a role-model of accessibility for all travelers and to make the airport experience as memorable as possible,” said Tim Joniec, the airports’ Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, spokesman Patrick Hogan said providing the Aira service for free at the airport was a “no brainer,” because “It’s a great way to ensure people with little or no vision can enjoy the same airport experiences that sighted people do.”

Memphis International Airport, the first to adopt Aira, is pleased other airports are following its lead in offering the service to passengers. “This shows a collective commitment in the airport industry to ensure greater accessibility and convenience for all passengers,” said MEM spokesman Glen Thomas.

While some airports have found out about AIRA by word of mouth, others are learning about this and other useful services through a matchmaker-type program for airports and start-ups.

“We recognize airport leaders are very busy and don’t have the wherewithal to scout the startup community for solutions,” said Chris Runde, director of the Airport Innovation Accelerator at the American Association of Airport Executives, “We try to bridge the gap by finding out what airports need and then finding what’s out in the marketplace.”

In addition to helping the Aira team understand how airports work and making introductions for them in the airport community, AAAE’s accelerator program is also making airport connections for several other groups, including Elerts, which offers See Something Say Something mobile apps that can help improve airport safety, and Sleepbox, a micro-hotel company that just signed a contract to place 16 units at Dulles International Airport.

 

Are your favorite airports and airlines on these lists?

Airport Council International (ACI), the trade association of world airports,has issued its list of winners of the 2017 Airport Service Quality Awards (ASQ).

The awards cover  airports around the world and are based on more than 600,000 passenger surveys evaluating 34 performance indicators, including airport access, check-in, security screening, restrooms, stores, restaurants, and passenger comments about their best and worst experience at each airport.

In North America, Indianapolis International and Jacksonville International Airport tied in the Best Airport title among airports serving more than 2 million passengers a year.

There was also a tie for 2nd place in this category between El Paso (ELP), Ottowa (YOW) and Toronto Billy Bishop (YTZ) airports. Ditto for 3rd place in this category, between Austin (AUS), Columbus (CMH), Dallas Love Field (DAL), Halifax YHZ), Pittsburgh (PIT), San Antonio (SAT), San Jose (SJC) and Tampa (TPA).

Maine’s Portland International Jetport (PWM) was named Best Airport in North America among those serving less than 2 million passengers a year.

And Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport (CLE) was named the Most Improved Airport in North America.

When ranked by size (passengers served) and region, here are this year’s North America winners

2–5 million passengers per year: Ottawa (YOW)
5–15 million passengers per year: Indianapolis (IND)
15–25 million passengers per year: Tampa (TPA)
25–40 million passengers per year: Minneapolis (MSP)
Over 40 million passengers per year: Toronto Pearson (YYZ)

Be sure check out the full list of ACI’s 2017 rankings for airports in other parts of the world.

The Points Guy site also released its 2018 Best Airlines Annual Report, with rankings of U.S. airlines based on  evaluation of data and factors such as on-time arrival rates, passenger complaints, cabin comfort, baggage issues, frequent flyer programs and more.

Alaska Airlines topped this list for the second year in a row.

“The ongoing merger between Alaska Airlines and Virgin America hasn’t slowed down this customer favorite,” said TPG, noting that the Seattle-based Alaska Airlines ranked in its top three for airfare, on-time arrivals, customer satisfaction, baggage and a best-in-the-industry frequent flyer program.

Here’s how the rankings of the U.S. airlines shook out:

Alaska:

Southwest

Delta

United

Frontier

American

Spirit

JetBlue

Hawaiian

 

Flying on Valentine’s Day? Cupid may be too.

Charles Lindbergh-themed Valentine

Air travel isn’t romantic unless you’re flying with your sweetie or are on your way to being with them, but this Valentine’s Day some airports and airlines are doing what they can to make the day special.

Shortcut to marriage

The uptick of couples applying for last minute marriage licenses in Las Vegas around Valentine’s Day usually overwhelms the downtown county’s clerk’s office, so this year there’s a pop-up marriage license bureau set up through February 17 in the baggage claim area of Terminal 1 at McCarran International Airport.

Couples will still need to find someone to perform the legal marriage ceremony, but filling out a pre-application and getting a license at the airport can go a long way in streamlining the process. For lovebirds in a rush, keep in mind that the Terminal 1 baggage claim area at the Las Vegas airport also has 24-hour flower vending machines and a to-go liquor shop.

Flowers and chocolates

(Courtesy PHL Airport)

As they have in previous years, volunteers at both Philadelphia International Airport and Florida’s Jacksonville International Airport will be handing out Valentine’s Day carnations to passengers.

To celebrate the opening of its automated people mover – called SkyConnect – and its new 2.6 million square foot rental car center, Tampa International Airport will be giving out 1,000 roses to passengers and guests who come out for the first ride.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport caps off its fourth “We Love Our Guests Campaign” on Valentine’s Day with key rings and teddy bears for passengers and photo booths and love-themed music playing throughout the airport.

There will be a “Kissing Booth” distributing chocolate kisses and Valentines to passengers at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) on February 14 and a chance to hug and pose with some of the miniature therapy horses that regularly visit the airport.

The horses at CVG will be decked out in their Valentine’s Day attire, as will the therapy dogs at Los Angeles International, Phoenix Sky Harbor and many other airports around the country. The love-fest will continue February 16, when specially-dressed therapy dogs and team-member Lilou the pig help passengers usher in the Lunar New Year at a photo station in San Francisco International Airport.

Heat-shaped lollipops will be handed out to passengers during Valentine’s Day in many terminals at Los Angeles International Airport and in the Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale International Airport they’ll be celebrating the day with a live entertainment, face painting, and complimentary chocolate roses and candy buffets.

Chocolates will be offered to passengers flying through Austin Bergstrom International Airport on February 14 and, for those who still need to purchase a Valentine’s gift before leaving the airport, they’ll be a booth selling chocolate-covered strawberries from local favorite Amy’s Ice Creams in the bag claim area. Shops in most every other airport will have chocolates, heart-shaped bake-goods and trinkets and other romantic items wrapped and ready to go as well.

Valentine’s Day activities at Heathrow International Airport will include live music, free heart-shaped candies, Polaroid photo ops, complimentary caricature sketches and make-your-own Valentine’s Day card stations. And to insure no Valentine’s Day proposals are inadvertently ruined by a shiny engagement ring drawing the attention of a security officer at the checkpoint,  officials at England’s East Midlands Airport have been offering “secret codes” to travelers who’d like their bags inspected out of their traveling companion’s line of vision.

Airlines offering Valentine’s Day treats for travelers. 

Passengers on Southwest Airlines flights will be treated to a complimentary alcoholic beverage on Valentine’s Day and, at airports across the country, airline employees will be setting up candy and card stations for passengers. Some Southwest flights will be declared “fun flights,” with employees hosting trivia games and giveaways as well.

United Airlines will be setting up Valentine’s Day candy stations in its club lounges on Valentine’s Day, ANA (All Nippon Airways) will be handing out specially-made chocolates to all passengers, and Alaska Airlines will be unveiling a heart-shaped sculpture with a special meaning at San Francisco International Airport.

And Economy and Business Class passengers taking a Valentine’s Day flight from Dubai on Emirates will be served heart-shaped chocolates with their meals.

 

 

APEX awards applaud airlines for attention to passenger experience

 

 

I had the honor of being a judge for one of the awards handed out Monday night at the APEX Awards Ceremony to honor airlines for excellence in passenger experience.

 

(APEX is the Airline Passenger Experience Association, an organization of airlines, suppliers and related companies holding its annual APEX EXPO in Long Beach, California this week.)

14 awards were the 2012 Passenger Choice Awards, which are voted on by the traveling public through online surveys  anyone can fill out and are tabulated by the Nielsen Company.

Here are the winners:

Best in Region: Africa – South African Airways

Best in Region: Americas – Virgin America

Best in Region: Asia and Australasia – SriLankan Airlines

Best in Region: Europe – Virgin Atlantic

Best in Region: Middle East – Emirates

Best Inflight Publication – Southwest Airlines

Best IFE User Interface – Virgin America

Best Inflight Connectivity & Communications – Norwegian

Best Inflight Video – Kingfisher Airlines

Best Cabin Ambiance – Virgin America

Best Food & Beverage, in conjunction with IFSA – Singapore Airlines

Best Ground Experience – Kingfisher Airlines

Best Overall Passenger Experience (over 50 IFE EQUPPED IN FLEET)  – Emirates

Best Overall Passenger Experience (Up to 50 IFE EQUIPPED IN FLEET) – Virgin America

(IFE = In-Flight Entertainment)

Two categories judged by people in the industry were the Avion Awards for Best in Passenger Experience and Best Achievement in Technology.

Delta Airlines won the Best Achievement in Technology award for “Demystifying the Checked Bag Experience.”

I was on the panel for the Best in Passenger Experience awards, which were given to one vendor and to one airline.

Lufthansa Systems received the award for its BoardConnect system   and  Brussels Airlines  won the Best in Passenger Experience award for its new long haul cabin, which includes a business-class section with both “King” seats for those want to sit alone and “double” seats for couples of business partners who would like to be able to talk to each other.  What especially caught the panel’s attention was the addition of a pneumatic cushion/mattress to the seats which allows passengers to increase and decrease the softness of the bed in various places.

Today the APEX EXPO’s exhibit hall opens. Ive got comfortable shoes and a notepad at the ready and will spend the day poking around to see what’s new, interesting and, of course, destined to make traveling more fun and enjoyable. We’ll see…