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A ticket to the world:
our new tool for inclusive air travel

Karl Traeger experienced one of those unforgettable ‘lightbulb’ moments back in 2018, when he was exploring children’s virtual reality games with his young son.

An architect who leads the aviation sector at Architectus, Karl had been thinking about the limitations society might place on his recently adopted son, whose genetic condition – Achondroplasia dwarfism – slows the growth of bones, leading to an average height of four feet.

Airports are such a central part of Karl’s professional life. But he wondered whether his boy would get the opportunity to travel independently one day – to experience the joy and freedom of flying to new places.

Then something struck him while playing one of the games with him.

“In that virtual environment, disability was not a factor,” Karl says. “My son moved through the spaces just like his siblings who had joined in.”

What if he could harness that power, creating a VR game or app to help his son prepare for a world that wasn’t typically designed with his needs in mind?

Karl decided to put his expertise to work on an inclusive design tool that could build his confidence to more easily access and move through stressful spaces like airports.

But what he ultimately developed was something with even greater benefits – and wider reach.

From idea to reality

To bring his vision to life, Karl drew on insights from a 25-year career in the aviation industry, designing and delivering major airport terminals across the Asia-Pacific, including in China, Singapore, Indonesia, and all major Australian cities.

Those complex transport projects come with myriad stakeholders and a multi-layered design and consultation process. That was all great grounding for his work on the tool, which he dubbed A-UX, short for Airport User-Experience Simulation System.

Expanding his scope to include people who did not have the same disability as his son, Karl set off to learn more about non-visible and intellectual disabilities.

At the same time, he started building relationships with people who had the unique insights needed to make A-UX a genuine – and genuinely helpful – success.

Building relationships – and understanding

Karl worked alongside the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, Autism Spectrum Australia (ASA), travel psychology researchers, and mental health professionals.

These groups helped him gather essential information on how cognitive disabilities could elevate someone’s anxiety levels at airports.

Hands-on workshops provided the most powerful demonstrations of how that might occur, says Karl.

For example, a session with ASA revealed how a person with autism could be quickly overstimulated and stressed by an environment that’s busy, noisy, artificially bright, and visually cluttered.

That real and valuable feedback informed the training element of A-UX.

Empathy training for airport staff

The system – incorporating VR, desktop and mobile apps – is not only a helpful tool for travelers.

It’s also designed to help airport staff more easily recognise non-visible disabilities and better understand the challenges some travelers face.

The hope is that the extra awareness and knowledge will translate to more sensitive support and services for these passengers.

That could improve their travel experience while also making airline processes more efficient and intuitive.

Testing the tool with airport staff, Karl and his collaborators have already gathered evidence confirming that it increases empathy and understanding.

A ticket to the world

A-UX started with that one small but significant step to help a loved one.

Since then, it has evolved into a fully immersive, real-world simulation of major airports that people with different disabilities and/or travel anxiety can learn to navigate before ever leaving home.

Current A-UX models include Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and Australia’s major east coast airports. Trials have been particularly valuable in Brisbane, as the city prepares for a wide array of visitors for the 2032 Olympics. 

Karl and his team have also held talks with Singapore Changi Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport – large, complex facilities where more than 15 million passengers a year pass through the doors. 

Expanding services

The goal is that soon travelers who want to experience the departure and arrival experience before flying will be able to download A-UX just like any other high-end virtual experience.

Disability service providers and airports may also choose to add A-UX to their support and care services. At the same time, airport staff can be enrolled in training that will ensure the real-world experience is as smooth as the virtual one. 

Ultimately, A-UX has the potential to unlock a huge range of benefits, allowing people with a disability to connect with more of the world around them.

Some of those recognised benefits of travel include:

-Exercises and rewires the brain through new experiences
-Boosts self-esteem in the face of adversity
-Improves communication and social skills
-Enhances feelings of happiness and lowers risk of depression
-Potentially increases satisfaction with work and health via the chance for a break or holiday.

A brighter future

The future looks brighter for Karl’s son with a tool like A-UX, and more accessible travel may just be the beginning. The tool could be applied to other complex environments such as hospitals, for example.

As an architect and parent viewing the world through the lens of inclusivity, Karl believes the benefits of A-UX are universal, whatever the environment.

“When you design an airport for people with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, you’re actually creating a positive travel experience for everyone,” he says.

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