Last week, British Airways reached out to me to share details of their exciting new partnership with power wheelchair manufacturer WHILL.

Using WHILL’s Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) model, British Airways recently trialled state-of-the-art, fully autonomous wheelchairs to help mobility-challenged customers navigate New York’s JFK Airport more easily.

WHILL Model Ci autonomous wheelchair with British Airways branding.
WHILL Model Ci autonomous wheelchair with British Airways branding.

The passengers were able to sit down in a WHILL Model Ci wheelchair, select their destination on an intuitive display and let the wheelchair do the work — no staff intervention necessary.

Ricardo Vidal, British Airways’ Head of Innovation, said that the trial of autonomous wheelchairs was derived as a result of passenger feedback: “Our customers tell us they would like greater independence and control over their journey through the airport, so we were keen to trial autonomous wheelchairs and see our customers response to the very latest mobility technology in a real airport environment. 

The JFK trial was a success, according to British Airways’ Innovation Lead Amelia Wallace-Scott: “We had a lot of interest and great customer feedback from those who tried it.”

Next up will be a trial at London’s Heathrow Airport.

“Over the next few months we will be completing a further trial at our busy home hub at Heathrow Terminal 5 to gather more feedback and explore the introduction of this technology alongside our team of customer service professionals to provide a truly seamless and accessible airport experience,” said Vidal. “I’m excited about the future of inclusive innovation to support the accelerating demand for accessible air travel.”

These trials come after others that have been held by WHILL in Tokyo, Japan, at Haneda International Airport.

Autonomous wheelchairs will help passengers with mobility assistance needs maneuver throughout the world’s airports more efficiently, freeing staff to assist passengers with more substantial needs, such as those who are non-ambulatory.

This initiative comes amid a new, company-wide focus on the accessible travel experience at British Airways. The airline was the first to announce support for the UK Department for Transport’s “It’s Everyone’s Journey” campaign, which aims to improve awareness of the issues faced by customers requiring additional assistance. Alex Cruz, the airline’s Chairman and CEO, recently signed The Valuable 500 and pledged the airline’s commitment to discuss accessibility at board level.

Although there is still a great deal of work to be done on the accessible travel experience at British Airways (like those business class suites), I am encouraged by this initiative and look forward to the trial becoming a permanent program.

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