Schindler sees pandemic-weary U.S., Asia as top markets for touchless lift buttons

ZURICH, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Touchless elevator buttons are in highest demand in Asia and the United States, Schindler Chief Executive Thomas Oetterli said, as the Swiss lifts maker adapts products to tackle worries that the new coronavirus lurks in public spaces.

Oetterli, who on Wednesday reported Schindler’s 2020 profit fell 17% to 774 million Swiss francs ($864 million), said the new sensor-equipped buttons, introduced mid-pandemic, require passengers to hover a finger centimeters away to select a floor.

Highlighting how Schindler rebounded quickly in China but faced a more prolonged U.S.-European hit as lockdowns persist, Oetterli, 51, said he has not personally hesitated to ride an elevator since the COVID-19 crisis hit.

But he realized others might have misgivings.

“What I was thinking was, ‘How do people feel who now have to take an elevator, what makes them feel uncomfortable and what could we do to make them feel safe?’ ” he said in an interview.

“We realized, what people are scared of the most, they don’t want to push an elevator button anymore.”

Oetterli did not give sales figures for touch-button elevators, but acknowledged the hands-free option costs more.

They are among several hygiene-related innovations, including a system that filters an elevator car’s air while zapping it with ultraviolet light, that Schindler has rolled out during the pandemic.

Rivals are adapting too: Otis Worldwide is testing voice controls, while Finland’s Kone Oyj has also flagged hygiene-related options to ease riders’ peace of mind.

Oetterli attributed the regional differences in hands-free button demand to how elevators are deployed from country to country.

In the United States, he said, they’re often in high-traffic commercial buildings, where prospects of thousands of fingers touching buttons as COVID-19 rages could make people squeamish.

“It’s just a natural consequence that people would like to have touchless solution,” he said. “Whereas in Europe, most of the elevators are in smaller residential buildings. You know your neighbor, you know your family. Therefore, maybe demand is less.”

$1 = 0.8954 Swiss francs Reporting by John Miller; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise