Is There a Wheelchair Conga Line Coming to An Airport Near You?

the last mile

The Last Mile

Trains, Planes and Automobiles all pose challenges to the disabled, whether they are mobility challenged or visually or hearing or cognitively impaired. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of the solutions, as well as challenges and frustrations. We’re talking to public transit officials, airport administrators, airline representatives, and folks from car sharing services.

Why Airports Are The Best And The Worst

Nobody seems to be keeping track of the overall number of airline passengers requesting wheelchair assistance. One estimate puts the figure at about 20 million in the U.S. in 2016. But anyone who travels can tell you that the number of wheelchair passengers is increasing by leaps and bounds. In the past year we know that’s it’s not unusual for as many as 10% of passengers on a flight to require wheelchair assistance. At least two airports report planes landing with requests for more than 100 wheelchairs. U.S. Airlines are required by law to provide that assistance at no charge and the U.S. Department of Transportation has been known to impose heavy fines on airlines that didn’t comply. Many of those who ask for wheelchair a the airport may never use a wheelchair elsewhere. And it’s easy to understand why. Distances between gates at many major airports can routinely run half a mile. In a couple of cases, the distances can be over a mile. That’s a challenge even for able-bodied passengers needing to make connections. And it’s simply beyond the capability of many seniors and the disabled. Remember that every wheelchair requires an attendant who sticks with the passenger from the check-in counter to the gate. Yes, many airports have people moving ramps, but they require standing and often significant walks between ramp segments. And while the airlines do provide electric golf carts, there’s often no system for getting one. Worse, some airports now report that their concourses are simply running out of room for all these vehicles.

Problem and Opportunity

One company that sees a business opportunity in resolving the in-airport transportation dilemma is California-based electric wheelchair maker Whill. The company has announced that it has landed $45 million in venture funding to develop what it terms MaaS, or Mobility As A Service. You can read the complete announcement here.

We had a chance to chat with Jeff Yoshioka, Senior Marketing Manager at Whill and asked him to describe Mobility As A Service (MaaS):

It’s providing an individual the tools or device that is needed to get efficiently from point A to point B. It’s giving people the device that’s needed to travel efficiently and safely from point A to point B by utilizing various forms of transportation, not just a Whill device like with trains, taxis and buses.

For us, we’re offering people with mobility issues the opportunity to utilize services similar to Lyme or Motivate, which currently offers bikes or electric scooters. But there’s no option for those who can’t use those devices and Whill will be giving them the opportunity to use a similar service like that.

Yoshioka says that for starters Whill is only taking on a small part of the problem:

What we’re trying to address is the wheelchair system at the airport. Our initial goal is to address that challenge and the challenge customers have when they arrive at the airport.

Right now someone will come with a manual wheelchair and they’ll push you to the check-in counter, walk you all the way to the gate. And on the way you may want to stop off at a bookstore, maybe grab a bite to eat at a restaurant or even use the bathroom but you’re relying on the assistant to take you to all those stops.

For some users, they also reach their gate and the assistant might leave with the wheelchair leaving you without any device to then move around or even go to the restroom.

With our technology and once the infrastructure is put in place, a user will be able to summon the device through an app. At the check-in counter, for example, they can put in any destination at the airport that they want and can move freely throughout the airport without someone. They can go to the restroom without someone taking them there and waiting for them and maybe feeling rushed or a little uncomfortable because they know someone is out there waiting for them.

It provides a lot more independence and freedom to move throughout the airport than what the current system has in place. It’s very safe.

We’re building the auto stop function so if it does encounter an obstacle, the chair will automatically stop and you don’t have to worry about banging into a wall or an individual causing any injuries.

the last mileYoshioka envisions a system where you could use an app to get a Whill when you deplane and have it take you to baggage claim or to the curb.  And using the technology, the new chairs can be moved remotely to get back to their starting point.  Here’s a video that illustrates the concept.

Yoshioka admits this is a huge undertaking and Whill is trying to tackle it in small chunks:

In the near future, we are hoping to start the last mile and helping to support that so people can summon a device. So instead of taking a bus, you can take a Whill, or personal device from their apartment down to the grocery store or down to the workplace.

Whill admits it may be several years before it’s “Last Mile” concept becomes reality. And Yoshioka says the company will be using part of its new funding to work with government agencies and private business to start implementing the process. In the meantime, as Baby Boomers become disabled in greater numbers, this is only going to become a bigger problem. Next time, Gridlock Inside the Airport.

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Gary is an award-winning journalist who has been covering technology since IBM introduced its first personal computer in 1981. Beginning at NBC News, then at ABC News, Ziff Davis, CNN, and Fox Business Network. Kaye has a history of “firsts”. He was the first to bring a network television crew to the Comdex Computer Show, the first technology producer on ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, the first to produce live coverage of the Solar Power International Conference, and the creator of the Fox Business Network signature series, “Three Days In The Valley”. Along the way he created the History Channel Multimedia Classroom. He has been a contributor to both AARP’s website and to AARP radio, as well as to a handful of other print and web-based publications where he specializes in issues involving boomers/seniors and technology. He has been a featured speaker and moderator at industry events such as the Silvers Summit and Lifelong Tech Conferences at CES, the M-Enabling Health Summit, and the What’s Next Baby Boomer Business Summit. His column, “Technology Through Our Eyes” appears in half a dozen newspapers and websites across the country.


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