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New service to help visually impaired travelers at Buffalo-NF airports

Nick Lippa

A service that will help guide the blind and visually impaired is coming to the Buffalo and Niagara Falls International Airports.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has teamed up with a San Diego-based company named Aira whose agents can access visible information through a camera on your phone or special glasses. This service helps people like NFTA Commissioner Margo Downey.

“Connecting to agent Hannah. Starting video. Please wait,” an automated Aira message said.

Less than a second later, you could hear, “Thank you for calling Aira. This is Hannah.”

“Hi. I’m at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport,” Downey said to the agent.

It was Downey’s first time trying out the service in the airport. Her first call dropped, showing the system isn’t quite perfect, but shortly after, she reconnected with another agent to find out exactly where she needed to go.

“Hi Austin,” Downey said to a new agent. “Can you pull up the map for Buffalo-Niagara International Airport? And I want to get from the JetBlue ticket counter to the Delta ticket counter.”

“It’s not showing me ticket counter locations,” agent Austin replied, “but I do have gates for the specific airport. So in that case let me look around to your left here,” Austin said, now guiding her by the camera on Downey’s phone.

For Downey and others in the visually impaired community, the service has potential to grow.

“If you’re job searching, Aira helps with that. If you’re a college student, Aira helps a person probably navigate the campus for the first time,” she said.

Joining Downey in presenting Aira was Sassy Outwater-Wright, who has been blind all her life. She said when she travels alone through an airport, she generally has three choices.

“Go in alone and ask for directions along the way and remember what I can, or ask for assistance from somebody who may not know my individual preferences or needs or desires, or call an Aira agent,” Outwater-Wright said.

Outwater-Wright added, it puts her on even footing with everybody else.

“If I want information I don’t have to sit and wait for somebody to give that to me,” she said. “I can get that for myself, at a tap of a button, at a moment’s notice, 24/7—and that, for this community, is such an opportunity that we’re so grateful to have the chance to bring.”

Outwater-Wright said Aira is also currently free on the MBTA in Boston on a pilot project to study how people use it around the city.

Only about four years old, Aira continues to grow—now in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls International Airports.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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