Upward Mobility: Self-Driving Wheelchairs at Tokyo’s Narita Airport

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Image via iStockphoto; ANA

Can self-driving wheelchairs help airlines meet the escalating demand for accessible air travel?

When it comes to demand for accessible air travel, all indicators point up. IATA forecasts that in less than two decades, airlines will carry upward of 8.2 billion passengers a year – nearly double the current amount. Over a shorter period, the 65-and-up demographic will grow by more than 50 percent. By 2030, one in every six people will count themselves a sexagenarian or older. By 2050, there will be more pensioners on the planet than adolescents. In other words, the increase in mobility also means an increase in travelers with mobility limitations.

Nowhere are these pressures felt more acutely than in the Asia-Pacific region, which in addition to leading the air travel and aging boom, also records the highest number of people with disabilities. One of the ways All Nippon Airways (ANA) plans to meet the accelerating demand for accessible air travel is with self-driving wheelchairs. After promising trials, the Japanese carrier plans to make the assistive devices available for travelers making connections at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport this year.

“Passengers have been excited to try the service and happy with the results.” – Tatsuno Naoki, ANA

For each transfer, a group of passengers is guided by one porter who operates the lead wheelchair as the others automatically follow. The airline is currently using two models, Whill’s Next and Doog’s Garoo, both of which use sensors to detect and halt for obstructions. To ensure that crisscrossing travelers don’t disrupt the convoy – an issue encountered during test runs – distance between the chairs was tightened and a sound alert feature was added.

According to Tatsuno Naoki, manager of the airline’s Innovation Strategy Corporate Planning department, passengers have been excited to try the service and happy with the results. “Most of them do not worry that they are all being taken care of and supported by only one agent,” he says.

In September last year, Etihad Airways announced plans to test Whill mobility device at Abu Dhabi International Airport, without the assistance of agents. The airline hopes that integration with SITA’s airport information technology and a companion app will allow for independent navigation and estimated distance times, with real-time gate and boarding updates in the pipeline. After dropping travelers off, the chairs can return to their docking station with no staff intervention. The personal electric vehicles have also been tested at Schiphol and Haneda and, most recently, at Dallas-Fort Worth and Winnipeg international airports.

Self-driving wheelchairs could reduce the number of staff that airlines need on hand at airports, but ANA is not ready to do away with its non-motorized service just yet. “Wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all,” cautions aviation accessibility consultant Chris Wood. But with more options available, “the obvious advantage for travelers is choice,” he says.

“Upward Mobility” was originally published in the 10.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.

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