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  • Writer's pictureRajeev Ramanath

Revolutionizing Airport Transport: The Future of Mobility Services

There has been a flurry of activity in the past few days about short-term wheelchair use in airports, specifically when the cost of this service was revealed. Let’s pause and look at this activity through a few lenses. Airlines use as many as 20 different Special Service Request (SSR) codes (as defined by the International Air Transport Association: IATA) to make reservations or communicate needs across various service providers a passenger interacts with while traveling. The specific SSR codes we are talking about here might apply to Persons with Limited Mobility (PLM) and Persons with Restricted Mobility (PRM) are:

  • WCHR: Passenger can ascend/descend steps and make their own way to/from the cabin seat but requires a wheelchair for distances to/from the aircraft.

  • WCHS: Passenger cannot ascend/descend steps, but can make their own way to/from the cabin seat; requires a wheelchair for distances to/from the aircraft and must be carried up/down steps.

The argument and frustration about abuse arise from the fact that passengers using the services as WCHR and WCHS passengers “should” take the service for their entire travel – the associated costs being the other half of this. This opens up a multifaceted discussion:


The Customer Perspective

  • Passengers with disabilities – of any kind – are protected under 14 CFR Part 382 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which prohibits discrimination against passengers with disabilities by U.S. and foreign carriers. It further requires that carriers make the aircraft, facilities, and all services accessible and accommodate passengers with disabilities. As a society that fundamentally believes that “All people are created equal,” it behooves us to provide accommodations to aspire to make this basic founding principle of our society come true.

  • The spectrum of disabilities is so broad and multi-modal that it is impractical for a “one-size-fits-all” approach. This has left everyone in a peculiar state.

  • Even with this wheelchair service in airports, what does a passenger do when they have been left at the gate two to three hours before departure? What options do they have to use the facilities at the airport or visit concessions stands? The only two options for them today are: a) stay put, and b) walk to the closest restroom or concession stand.

  • We are an aging global society. The UN estimates that people aged 65+ accounted for 9.3% of the population in 2019 and will account for 16% of the world population by 2050. We further know through a variety of studies run by the US Census Bureau that two-thirds of individuals age 65 or older have difficulty walking or climbing. How could we even think of excluding such a large population of our society that has been the bedrock?

  • Approximately 10% of the world's population lives with a hidden disability. These disabilities include conditions like mental health disorders, chronic illnesses, and learning disabilities, which are not immediately apparent but can significantly impact an individual's daily functioning and quality of life.


The Provider Perspective

  • Those in the industry have long known that these costs are highly labor-dependent driven primarily by the labor costs associated with a SSR agent. This usually runs about 60-65% of the cost borne for the service and ranges widely across various locales based on the prevailing minimum wage.

  • Airlines in the US often join small consortiums in an airport or terminal to contribute to the cost of the mobility service. To be fair, the costs are primarily borne by the airlines because of how federal regulations are drafted. In our research, we have found that some airports in the US join these consortia and participate financially to ensure that the passenger’s comfort during the visit to the airport is prioritized. To be fair to the airlines, when a passenger departs from an airport, their interactions with the airlines are quite limited (check-in and boarding) and most of their time is spent using the airport’s facilities and services. One could make the argument that because of this, the mobility service should be a shared cost and not borne completely by the airline.

  • The SSR agent’s job is not just pushing passengers around, but also managing their anxiety as they manage their travel, take passengers to restrooms or concessions, and perform wellness checks on them. It is a physically and emotionally demanding job and the pay is not particularly attractive.

  • Many service providers are unable to fill openings for SSR agents, partly because of the low pay and partly because of the physical strain it takes on their bodies.


Is There a Solution?

  • On one hand, we have a growing segment of our population that might need help with mobility; on the other, we have significant cost pressures on the existing solution, and to top it all, we get into emotionally charged discussions about “abuse of services.”

  • Historically, when we have had large differences between supply and demand, we have looked to science and technology for solutions: food supply using advanced farming, transportation, road infrastructure, space travel, and perhaps even climate change. The thought I want to plant is one as simple as this: if we can have billions of dollars being spent on making cars move autonomously if we can have another set of billions of dollars being spent on autonomous trucks, why can we not spend a tiny fraction of that on moving people autonomously?


Blueberry Technology's Initiative

  • While this discussion may be somewhat provocative and arguably controversial, it also serves as an introduction to our work at Blueberry Technology. We believe in accessible mobility for all. To that end, we started with the niche of airport PRM and PLM passengers and built a bespoke autonomous mobility vehicle for airport use: BBGo. We piloted this vehicle at the San Jose Mineta Airport over Christmas and New Year’s a few months ago. The feedback was fabulous with over 315 passengers served over the 70 hours that we operated there over 20 days.

  • The vehicle is designed to be either fully autonomous, driven by a collision-aware joystick solution, or simply pushed around like a conventional wheelchair. We seamlessly transition between these modes. There is ample space for carry-on luggage, an ergonomic seat, and a multilingual interactive display that scans your boarding pass, stops at restrooms or restaurants along the way, and takes you to your gate. The vehicle can be remotely dispatched to meet the passengers where they are and can be remotely dispatched to go back to a pre-designated home location. I invite you to checkout our social media channels (Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube).

  • With BBGo, our goal is to not only alleviate the cost pressures that airlines and airports are under but also manage peak demand variations for the service. Most importantly, it puts the passengers in control of what they want to do when they are at the airport. Perhaps the SSR agents can now focus on what they do best: interact with the passengers, onboard them onto BBGo units, and make their stay at the airport enjoyable and comfortable instead of having to run around pushing passengers from one location to another.

1 Comment

Valerie Burrows
Valerie Burrows
Jun 05

Great, the future is here! Or almost 😉I envision a success in 2 steps: first, a transitional period where human presence is still in the equation before reaching the fully solo self-driving vehicles status. Will seniors and disabled passengers be willing to jump alone from the Middle Ages to the 21st century?

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