Getting There and Back Again: Air Travel for People with Disabilities

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When booking air or ground transportation, travelers with disabilities come across myriad problems. Today, we’ll look at the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the important functions of the air travel experience that should be accessible to all travelers, regardless of disability.

Air Travel & the ACAA Requirements

Website accessibility requirements are in effect for airlines operating flights within or to the U.S. or selling tickets to the U.S. public. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), these airlines are required to ensure that the public-facing content of their websites conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA.

The regulations currently apply to core air travel services and to the entire site as of December 12, 2016. Core air travel services are defined in 14 CFR 382.43 to include portions of the site related to seven core activities:

  • Booking or changing a reservation, including all flight amenities;
  • Checking in for a flight;
  • Accessing a personal travel itinerary;
  • Accessing the status of a flight;
  • Accessing a personal frequent flyer account;
  • Accessing flight schedules; and
  • Accessing carrier contact information.

By implication, this also includes the general portions of the site users need to navigate through to access these services.

Booking or changing a reservation, including all flight amenities

When it comes to booking a flight or changing a reservation, there can be several barriers to access for people using assistive technology and those with cognitive disabilities. Let’s look at just two example travelers:

Fernanda‘s arthritis requires her to use the keyboard or a text-to-speech program to navigate an airline’s website. Certain websites make selecting dates on a calendar difficult, while others make it impossible for her to select her seat.

The flight booking process can be very frustrating due to Han‘s short-term memory problems. Particularly difficult sites to use are ones that have many pages and steps but do not provide breadcrumbs (e.g., “Step 2 of 4: Select your return flight.”). A simple reminder of where he is in the booking process helps Han immensely.

An important requirement of the ACAA is that people with disabilities have equal access to web-only fares, even if they cannot access the website.

Checking in for a flight & using self-serve kiosks

Mobile apps are increasingly being used tor flight check-in and boarding at the gate. However, kiosks are still strategically important:

  • Backup when mobile apps are not available or not working
  • Printing out luggage tags
  • Rebooking flights
  • Buying add-ons

Automated kiosks operated by carriers at airports must be made accessible to people with disabilities. The difficulty with accessing kiosks is that they are “closed products.” You cannot attach your own assistive technology to them, so the access features must be built into the product itself.

The ACAA regulations apply to any kiosk owned, leased, or controlled in U.S. airports with 10K+ enplanements per year. They require:

  • 25% of kiosks installed after December 12, 2016 be accessible to people with disabilities and
  • 25% of all kiosks be accessible by December 12, 2022.

In addition, while it is not part of the ACAA requirements, having some sort of audio beacon for accessible kiosks would make them easier to locate for those who are blind or low vision.

Accessing a personal travel itinerary or frequent flyer account

When logging into their account, the traveler should be able to quickly locate and read their travel itinerary, or see the information about their frequent flyer benefits.

Betsy‘s itinerary is available but it is only available in PDF format. The PDF is not tagged correctly, so her screen reader cannot read it. She can zoom in until the text is large enough for her to read, but it requires much more time and effort than using her screen reader.

Accessing the status of a flight & flight schedules

We’ve talked a good deal about being able to access the website for an air carrier. But what about status updates that are given via monitors or audio announcements at the airport?

While travelers with disabilities often will “check in” with the gate attendant to be sure they are aware of their needs, oftentimes the deaf or hard of hearing are forgotten when important announcements are made regarding their flight.

Darya‘s cochlear implants help her hear, but in a busy airport, sometimes it is difficult to pick out the announcements, especially if the speaker doesn’t enunciate. On one trip, there was announcement that passengers heading to Chicago needed to speak with an agent. Darya did not hear this announcement and missed her flight. This problem could have been avoided with technology, for example, a monitor above the gate with the same message and/or a text message sent to her phone. This would also be a useful feature for hearing customers who may be distracted or in the restroom when important announcements about flight status are made.

Accessing carrier contact information

Until the website is fully compliant, airlines should have measures in place to allow individuals with disabilities to obtain services and information. These should include, at a minimum, a toll-free hotline and an email address that is monitored frequently by customer service. This information should be posted prominently on the carrier’s website. If a carrier fails to have adequate temporary measures in place, the carrier may be subject to enforcement action by the Enforcement Office.


Want to Learn More?

Come back in a week for our final installment, “Traveling with Disabilities: Ground Transportation, Hotels, & Entertainment.” In the meantime, you can register for our free webinar on digital accessibility for the travel and hospitality industry. It’ll be on Tuesday, June 13th at 2pm EDT. It’s totally free and you know you want an hour to relax with your earbuds in that day.

Digital Accessibility for the Travel and Hospitality Industry

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