New technology at Sky Harbor helps deaf travelers communicate

A new traveler assistance program at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is sure to add credibility to the airport’s nickname of “America’s Friendliest Airport.” Sky Harbor is rolling out a series of tablets to help deaf and hard of hearing travelers get the information they need and communicate better while traveling.

The airport recently linked up with the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues to offer this visual aid. Five tablets are installed throughout the airport, offering help to those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have speech challenges. Getting through the airport is hard enough, but having issues with communication makes it even harder.

The tablets are in operation in Terminal 4 with five more planned to be installed in other parts of the airport by the end of next year. The touchscreen tablets feature free-to-use apps for travelers to use and communicate with interpreters via video chat. Travelers can use sign language to ask questions about everything from airport resources to directions.

The tablets with Video Relay Service (VRS) came after the National Association of the Deaf hosted a convention here in Phoenix in 2016. Phoenix Sky Harbor and the ACDHH collaborated for these services to be provided after the Commission provided information and training on equal accessibility for persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind and speech-challenged.

“This service was offered during the convention and sparked an idea to offer this type of service more permanently,” says Heather Lessner, a PR rep for the airport. “We installed the tablets with Video Relay Service to improve the overall travel experience and provide an added service for Deaf and hard of hearing as well as speech-challenged travelers while they travel through America’s Friendliest Airport®.”

The video relay service installed in the tablets is the video equivalent of the traditional telecommunications relay service (TRS) in which users type on a TeleTYpe (TTY) keyboard and the relay operator speaks the message to the recipient. Travelers can also make direct point to point video calls without the need of VRS, according to Sky Harbor.

The overall goal of the tablets is to make the always-hectic experience of traveling easier for people who already have a challenge in a major part of traveling: communication.

More than 400 Sky Harbor volunteers will be used as navigators and guest service representatives for the app, answering questions and providing the assistance travelers need.

“The ability to communicate with Sky Harbor employees, friends, family and colleagues once travelers arrive to Phoenix Sky Harbor is a major benefit in improving the traveling experience as it reaches far beyond the airport to expand access to our entire city and state,” says Carmen Green, deputy director of the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing, in a statement.

Besides offering the tablets within the airport, Sky Harbor reps say future tablets will be accessible at the Rental Car Center by the end of 2019.

Sky Harbor sees over 1,200 aircraft and more than 120,000 passenger arriving and departing each day, and has an annual economic impact of more than $38 billion.

Nick Esquer

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