Tampa International Airport is testing self-drive wheelchairs this week

Dec 5, 2021

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Travelers who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues may ask their airline for a wheelchair and/or an assistant or “pusher” to help them move through any U.S. airport and to their gate.

It is a free service the U.S. Department of Transportation requires airlines provide – and promptly – so don’t be shy about asking for this assistance.

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But during a pilot program underway at Tampa International Airport (TPA), passengers with mobility issues have another wheelchair option that gives them flexibility and more control over their airport journey than traditional wheelchair service now offers.

Through December 10, TPA is offering travelers free use of a self-drive electric wheelchair called Whill (pronounced “wheel”).

Passenger using Will mobility device at Tampa International Airport.
(Photo courtesy Tampa International Airport)

The sleek, motorized chairs look like a cross between a scooter and a wheelchair and can be used to move from departure counter to the gate after signing a rental waiver and taking a quick tutorial that includes advice on avoiding escalators and other possible hazards.

Related: 10 wheelchair-accessible tour companies that are changing the travel industry

In Sport mode the chairs can go up to 5 MPH, but the airport has them set on the Eco mode, which operates at 1-3 MPH.

TPA has 15 chairs available at a central location on the ticketing level of the main terminal between the United, Breeze, Avelo, and Spirit counters. (Southwest is directly across the way). Passengers can ask about the service during the check-in process or may be offered it by an agent.

TPA doesn’t intend to offer self-drive wheelchairs instead of traditional (and required) wheelchair service from airlines. But TPA spokeswoman Ashley Iaccarino says the airport wanted to test the alternative option “out of our concern for lack of skycap availability and the increase in passengers traveling with restricted mobility.” After the test program is over, TPA hopes that airlines will see the benefit and convince their wheelchair providers to offer these as an option for their customers,” she said.

While TPA’s self-drive wheelchair trial is unique, Whill is also working on a fully autonomous wheelchair option that passengers can use to get to their gates without the need for the passengers to drive themselves, says Whill’s Vice President of Sales, Justin Gagnon. Those devices look very similar to the ones being used in Tampa, but Gagnon says they also have built-in lidar sensors and stereo cameras to allow the device to drive itself and avoid people and any other obstacles along the way.

“Once the passenger disembarks from the device the unit will return to a staging area on its own. No need for someone to retrieve the device and an easy way for the passenger to navigate through the airport,” he says.

Whill wheelchairs with this autonomous technology have been tested at DFW (Dallas), Hartsfield-Jackson (Atlanta), JFK (New York), Pearson (Toronto) and Winnipeg Airports in Canada, Abu Dhabi Airport, and are fully operational at Haneda (Tokyo), says Gagnon, with more autonomous wheelchair tests at several other U.S. airports set for 2022.

Beyond giving passengers with mobility issues the choice of having someone push them in a wheelchair or driving on their own through the airport, self-drive wheelchair service can address a few other issues travelers with reduced mobility encounter at airports.

“We hear stories of passengers with reduced mobility being stranded without support, being left unattended and/or missing flights because they simply can’t find the help they need to reach their gate on time,” says Gagnon. “We’ve also heard that some passengers often won’t ask to use a restroom, visit a restaurant or grab a coffee while waiting for their flight.”

He notes that requests for wheelchair pushes are increasing at a much higher rate than overall passenger traffic and, with an aging population wanting to travel, this challenge will only intensify over time.

While Eric Lipp, Executive Director of the Open Doors Organization (ODO) is all for giving people mobility issues independence in airports so they can shop, eat, and wander, he says “most people with disabilities or that identify as being disabled have their own devices.” But he notes there are people who don’t feel they can easily walk around the airport. “They should be seen separately,” says Lipp, “Give those people a Segway, a golf cart, or a scooter, not a wheelchair, which blurs things.”

Featured image courtesy of Tampa International Airport

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