screen shot from aira listing in the app store. Aira logo is top left. Small lower case a in turquoise on a white circle inside a turquoise soft edged square. Text reads, Aira, description of life.

Using AIRA Access at the Airport

If it wasn’t readily apparent from my post about my trip to London, I love traveling. What I don’t love, though, is dealing with airports, which can be a challenge even when you have perfect vision.

I hate trying to get around airports. I have no useful vision, so it’s impossible for me to do so independently. I rely on either family or airport staff to navigate airports. I’ve had some bad experiences with airport staff, so I try to avoid them if I can.

Ever since that incident, I generally prefer to fly directly into Houston and get family to pick me up there when I come out for a visit. I can get a direct flight there from Phoenix and it’s only an hour and a half drive for my family, who can get passes to meet me at the gate.

An airplane.

Taking a Trip

Since I work for a college, I got a week and a half off for Christmas and decided to spend a few days in Texas visiting family.

About a week before my trip, I found out that both airports in Houston offer AIRA for free through their AIRA Access program. AIRA is a service that connects blind and visually impaired people with trained agents for help with all sorts of things. It uses either your smartphone camera or smart glasses to provide they with video of your surroundings while the agent talks to you.

I decided to give the service a try and told my brother I’d use it and meet him at baggage claim. I downloaded the app to my iPhone, created a free account, and configured the app to send me a notification whenever I was somewhere the free service is available.

Justin's seeing eye dog PJ lies on the ground. He is a black labrador and wears the brown seeing eye dog harness. PJ is relaxing on the carpet lying on his side with his legs
PJ chillaxing before the flight

My Experience

When I landed in Houston and took my phone out of airplane mode, I got a notification that the service was available for free where I was, just as I’d expected. After PJ and I walked off the plane, I stopped in the gate area, popped in my AirPods, and fired up the app.

Before I go on, I should note that using my AirPods was a bad idea. I own a set of bone conduction headphones for the sole purpose of being able to keep my ears open while using technology to get around, but I didn’t feel like digging them out of my backpack. Thankfully, AirPods let in enough ambient noise that it wasn’t a real issue.

Anyway, I was connected with an AIRA agent roughly 20 seconds after placing the call. He asked me a few basic questions since it was my first time using the service and asked if I was using a white cane or guide dog and if using a clock face for providing directions would work for me.

We initially had some trouble getting out of the seating area at the gate I arrived at, which was crowded with people waiting to board a flight back to Phoenix. Once we cleared out of that area, the agent asked me to stop and pan the camera around, so he could orient himself. He told me which way to walk and we started on our way. Two or three times he asked me to stop to pan around some and so he could catch pictures of some of the airport signage and read it. He guided me outside of security and to the elevators to baggage claim. My brother was waiting for me at the elevator, so I thanked the agent and ended the call there.

Screenshot of the AIRA screen. The background is black, and a large white lower case a with a circular turquoise blue background is in the middle of the screen. Beneath there are the following options, call me with a message, call using a free offer. Then the menu options home my glass live usage and more

My Thoughts

All in all, I have to say that I found the experience quite enjoyable. The agent I spoke with was very friendly and helpful. It was also nice to not have to wait at the gate for a member of airport staff to guide me to baggage claim. I would use the service again when I’m in an airport or other place that offers it for free through the AIRA Access program.

AIRA currently offers their subscription service, which allows you to use it anywhere, in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Their free program, AIRA Access, is available at select locations in the UK and Ireland, though their subscription service is not yet available. I wouldn’t have even written about the app for this blog if not for the launch of service at London Heathrow in December.

I’m personally still on the fence if their paid service would be worth it for me. In my current situation, I don’t think I’d use it enough to justify the price tag, but I suppose I’d probably do more where I could use it if I had it available. I know plenty of folks out there swear by the service, though.

If you’re interested, and living in the U.S why not try a 30 minute free trial of the premium service! More information here

Learn more about AIRA by watching this video about the app & the people who use it

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