The arrival of a new app at Winnipeg’s airport will make it easier for blind travellers to take off.
The Winnipeg Richardson International Airport announced Tuesday it has partnered with technology company Aira to give visually-impaired travellers free and unlimited access to a virtual guide on their smartphones.
The travel experience is traditionally visual by design, Aira spokesman Paul Schroeder said, listing off the extensive overhead signage, baggage claim carousels and gate names and numbers at airports.
"From the moment you step into the entrance of an airport, it can be a very stressful place for anybody – but certainly, if you are navigating as a blind person, without the ability to see the signs and the directions that sighted people kind of take for granted as part of their environment, it’s even that much more stressful," said Schroeder, vice-president of public policy and strategic initiatives at the United States-based technology company.
The Aira app helps alleviate some of that stress by connecting users to live agents who can guide them through the airport by gaining access to a user’s mobile camera or smart glasses, he added.
Users call or text a guide and then connect to the service. The agents can then describe objects, read signage and provide directions to users so they avoid bumping into obstacles such as kiosks – just as one did for Schroeder during a demonstration for reporters at the airport Tuesday morning.
Agents can even guide users to the washroom, although users are then required to enter privacy mode and pause the camera, which they can do by tapping their phone’s screen.
The only time the app has to be put down completely is when travellers enter through security.
"Blind people have travelled through airports as long as there have been airports and we’ve done so with the tools that we had at our disposal – the white cane or a dog guide and other tools," Schroeder said.
"But one of the things that we have found is that Aira can bring a level of efficiency and security in knowing that you’re making smart decisions in directions and not retracing your steps."
Winnipeg’s airport is the second in Canada to offer the service to its customers. Toronto Pearson Airport launched the service in July.
The executive director for the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Leonard Furber, called the airport’s introduction of Aira a "gamechanger."
"It does really make a difference to an individual's ability to travel independently, to get from point A to point B confidently," Furber said, adding he has used the app at home when he has needed to find the ketchup in his fridge.
Barry Rempel, president and chief executive officer of the Winnipeg Airports Authority, said the authority's goal is to ensure every traveller "is able to anticipate an excellent experience."
Rempel said the new accessibility measure adds to the airport's features including bright lighting, large fonts on signage and different textured floors that signal walkways and restroom areas.
Maggie is a cub reporter who covers every beat in the newsroom. She appreciates alliteration, when newspaper ink stains her fingertips and, more importantly, tips on social and environmental equity issues.