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New high-tech app allows visually impaired travelers easier access through Salt Lake City airport

New high-tech app allows visually impaired travelers easier access through Salt Lake City airport

(Meghan Thackery, KSL TV)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City International Airport has rolled out a new high-tech service aimed to assist blind or low-vision passengers better navigate around the airport.

It’s called Aira, which is short for Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistant, and it’s a free phone application that instantly connects those who use it to “highly-trained people” who interpret the passenger’s surroundings through their phone’s camera or special glasses, airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer explained during a press conference Tuesday.

“Basically, I have a live agent that sees through my phone, gives me a visual interpretation of what’s around me; and I hear them through an earpiece that I wear, or any other kind of headphones that I might wear,” added Everette Bacon, a National Federation for the Blind board of directors member and Utah Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired employee.

Bacon showed members of the media how the service worked following the press event. He meandered through the airport with the assistance of a guide named Nicole. She helped him through the terminal in real time by watching video from his phone.

"It's a different agent every time," Bacon said. "(The agent) might tell me 'to my right' or 'to my left'; or they might tell me clockface directions, like maybe 'go to 10 o'clock,' and then I'd go that way."

Prior to using the service, he said he'd have to wait for an airport employee to come, and he’d have to walk with that person through security. He said he found that to be a "limiting" experience, especially since the one helping usually had other tasks they'd have to put off to help.

"This frees up and allows me to travel — I can go all the way through security with this. I can find my gate. I can find my restaurant or a restroom if I need it, or anything like that," Bacon said.

Salt Lake City began implementing Aira earlier this year to ensure the airport was more accessible for all people, Volmer said. There are many other airports across the United States that have the service, Bacon added.

“(For) the airport to implement this process was very simple. It basically required us to purchase a block of minutes for Aira users to access, and then we defined a geofence area surrounding the airport’s three terminals,” she said.

The airport has averaged about 112 minutes of use per month since it was added, according to Volmer.

It continues to run as the airport nears its busiest time of the year, which centers around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said about 29,000 travelers are expected to come through the airport on Nov. 27 and more than 30,000 travelers are expected on Dec. 1.

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