New Federal Regulations Require Accessible Airline Websites and Kiosks

By Renee Dopplick, ACM Director of Public Policy
November 27, 2013

New federal regulations by the U.S. Department of Transportation require airlines to make their websites and airport kiosks more accessible for people with disabilities. Airlines have up to 2 years to make reservation, flight, and frequent flyer account information on their websites accessible and up to 3 years to make their entire websites accessible. They have up to 10 years to ensure that at least 25% of kiosks are accessible.

The required technical standard for airline websites is WCAG 2.0, an international web accessibility standard published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Airline websites, including any embedded third-party software, will need to meet the standard’s Level AA performance criteria. The U.S. Access Board has proposed incorporating WCAG 2.0 into its anticipated update of Section 508 requirements governing the accessibility of public websites provided by federal agencies.

Airlines must consult with individuals or organizations representing visual, auditory, tactile, and cognitive disabilities when testing the accessibility and usability of their websites. As a best practice, airlines are encouraged to work with disability advocacy organizations when developing accessible websites, rather than waiting until the testing phase, so accessibility can be built-in by design. The Final Rule encourages, but does not require, airlines to integrate all the feedback. Airlines are not obligated to incorporate suggested web accessibility changes that would be “unduly burdensome to implement.”

External links to partially or entirely inaccessible websites “containing information and consumer comments about the carrier’s services” must be accompanied by a disclaimer that the external website is not within the airline’s control and might not follow the same accessibility policies. The Final Rule uses the example of the Social Security Administration, which provides a popup “External Link Disclaimer” for social media links. In contrast, the Final Rule spotlights the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as two agencies that have “collaborated successfully” with those social media providers to provide accessible interfaces; their websites do not provide an “External Link Disclaimer” when users click on social media links.

Customers with disabilities who are unable to book flights online due to inaccessible airline websites continue to be entitled to online airfare discounts when making reservations by phone. The Final Rule reinforces the existing obligation of airlines to disclose online discounts and to waive fees not imposed on online reservations. The Final Rule warns airlines that a failure to provide such disclosures and equivalent pricing could result in enforcement action. Underscoring this warning and the need for properly trained customer service staff, the Final Rule references a research study conducted in 2010 by USACM member Dr. Jonathan Lazar, a Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences and the Director of the Universal Usability Laboratory at Towson University, and his students. That research study revealed possible compliance problems whereby customers who identified themselves as disabled and unable to book flights online due to accessibility problems did not always receive equivalent pricing by phone as online customers.

In 2010, Dr. Jonathan Lazar and students at the Department of Computer and Information Sciences of Towson State University conducted a study involving test calls to major carriers to determine how consistently carriers comply with these requirements. Their findings suggested that there are compliance problems. After placing a series of 60 phone calls (15 calls to each of 4 major carriers), students who self-identified as blind and specifically stated that they were unable to access the carrier’s Web site noted at least one instance per carrier of price discrimination (e.g., discounted Web-based fares offered online were not disclosed to the caller or the agent refused to waive the telephone reservation fee). The rate of compliance failure was as high as 33 percent and 40 percent respectively for two carriers.

The new regulations apply to U.S. and foreign airlines with at least one flight in the United States capable of carrying more than 60 passengers. The Final Rule amends rules implementing the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as a rule prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition.

For more information, read the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Final Rule on Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel: Accessibility of Web Sites and Automated Kiosks at U.S. Airports.