SAV Implements Power Wheelchairs to Improve Mobility Options

Aug. 15, 2023
Power wheelchairs give travelers with limited mobility more movement options inside the terminal.
Courtesy of The Savannah Airport Commission
The power wheelchairs at SAV provide limited mobility passengers with more freedom to move around the terminal.
The power wheelchairs at SAV provide limited mobility passengers with more freedom to move around the terminal.

Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) is enhancing the travel experience for passengers with reduced mobility. Teaming up with WHILL, a personal transportation solutions company, the airport now offers a power wheelchair service to provide improved mobility and independence.

With the WHILL Model C2 power chair, passengers can navigate the terminal, explore amenities and make their way to the gate without relying on assistance from airport staff. This innovative service represents the future of personal transportation within airports.

“Our industry operates in peaks and valleys, with sudden spikes in passenger demand," explained SAV Operations Manager Curt Bryant "Efficiently managing these spikes while accommodating the growing population of travelers with disabilities became a significant concern."

A New Era of Independence

Traditionally, passengers with mobility limitations had to rely on airport staff to push them in a wheelchair. The WHILL Model C2 power chair creates a new era of independence. Passengers can explore the airport, visit restaurants, shops, and restrooms, and make their way to their gate unassisted. The power chairs are available at the Mobility Services counter on the Departure Level for travelers at no cost for travelers.

Traditional push wheelchairs are still available to passengers if they prefer wheelchairs, or passengers may walk through an ADA-compliant TSA lane then take a golf cart post security. Travelers who utilize power wheelchairs undergo the same kind of security screening as those utilizing mobility scooters.

"The WHILL Model C2 allows any passenger traveling through Savannah Airport to utilize these chairs and move around the airport with complete freedom,” WHILL Vice President of Sales Justin Gagnon explained. “From picking up the chair at the check-in counter to going through security, grabbing a coffee, or visiting a restaurant, passengers no longer need to rely on assistance or ask for help. They can explore the airport at their own pace."

SAV leased four WHILL chairs, which have been in operation since May. Within a month, their use tripled. "We envision deploying these chairs to assist passengers from inbound aircraft as well,” Bryant said. “Often, when a plane arrives, passengers are eager to disembark quickly. Offering options for assistance, such as the WHILL chairs or golf carts, ensures a smooth and efficient experience for all travelers."

When asked about the specific features that made the WHILL chairs the preferred choice, Bryant pointed to their sleek design and advanced maneuverability. "The chair’s zero-radius turn wheels caught our attention during our research," he stated. "This feature allows passengers to navigate through the airport without worrying about running into others or obstacles. It creates a streamlined and user-friendly environment." The airport's partnership with Scootaround, a renowned supplier of personalized wheelchairs and scooters, further bolstered confidence in the choice of WHILL chairs.”

To reserve a power chair, passengers need to inform the airline about their need for wheelchair assistance when booking flights. Alternatively, they can visit the airline's check-in counter on the day of departure. This streamlined process ensures that passengers can embark on their journey with peace of mind, knowing that their mobility needs are taken care of. The WHILL Model C2 controls are designed to help passengers navigate the airport effortlessly and confidently, so they can immerse themselves in a seamless travel experience.

As passengers reach their departure gate, they leave the chair, which is then collected by the airport team and made available for other passengers to use.

“SAV,  pioneering approach to implementing this technology, demonstrates the commitment to enhancing the passenger experience. By allowing passengers to drive themselves, it eliminates barriers and provides complete freedom and independence within the airport environment,” Gagnon explained. "The ability to drive themselves breaks down barriers, such as navigating multiple levels and using trains. Passengers can now explore the airport without constraints, ensuring a more enjoyable and fulfilling travel experience."

Addressing concerns and skepticism from passengers was a key aspect of the implementation process. Gagnon noted the airport team in Savannah has been proactive in managing passenger apprehensions.

WHILL also manufactures an autonomous version of the wheelchair, but SAV declined to implement the technology at this time. The airport determined passengers were comfortable using the manual power chairs, but the autonomous version could be added down the road.

"Distance is a significant concern for many passengers," Bryant explained. "Providing options to address this, whether through autonomous chairs or other means, will be crucial. We are actively exploring opportunities to integrate autonomous solutions into our operations."

SAV is one of the first airports in North America to adopt the use of power wheelchairs as an alternative to the traditional push chairs provided by airlines. Trials of the technology have been conducted at various airports including Tampa International Airport (TPA), which yielded overwhelmingly positive feedback from passengers.

Gagnon said customer feedback from previous trials of the WHILL Model C2 power chair service has been overwhelmingly positive. Passengers expressed their delight at being able to explore the airport independently and make their way to the gate at their own pace. This newfound level of autonomy has revolutionized the travel experience for individuals with reduced mobility, empowering them to embark on their journeys with a renewed sense of confidence and freedom.

"We received excellent ratings across the board,” Gagnon said. “Passengers were extremely satisfied with the service, with all questions receiving a five out of five rating. From willingness to use the service again to recommending it, passengers expressed high levels of satisfaction."

SAV worked closely with WHILL to ensure smooth and secure operation while implementing the technology. Gagnon said they provided training to the airport team, ensuring they were well-versed in the technology and its operation. A checklist was created to review key information with passengers during the waiver signing process. This checklist is now carried by the airport team, ensuring consistency and safety.

The Future of Airport Mobility

The launch of the WHILL Model C2 power chair service marks a significant milestone in the evolution of personal transportation within airports. Gagnon asserts that services like this represent the future. Not only do these power chairs save time and energy for airlines, but they also enhance the lives of passengers with reduced mobility by enabling them to navigate the airport independently.

“The aviation industry recognized the need for a solution as the demand for wheelchair assistance was growing faster than passenger growth itself,” Gagnon said. “With an aging demographic that wants to continue traveling, airports are facing a significant increase in wheelchair requests, sometimes as high as 25% or more."