It’s Hard to be Optimistic About the New DOT Web and Kiosks Regulations

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This is a post about new rules from the United States government about accessibility for people with disabilities. The rules are about airline websites. They are also about kiosks at airports. The rules are supposed to make these things easier for people with disabilities to use. But the rules give the airlines too much time to make their websites and kiosks work for everyone. Back to Article

Department of Transportation

On November 5, 2013 the United States Department of Transportation issued regulations governing the accessibility for people with disabilities of airline websites and kiosks. While there are positive aspects of the new regulations, the government missed an enormous opportunity to advance and protect the rights of air travelers with disabilities.

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Optimism Has Its Limits

I am an optimist. Not only that, I believe in the power of optimism to affect change. In the book I’m writing about Structured Negotiations, I plan to devote an entire chapter to the types of emotional traits that make for a successful negotiator. Along with active patience and dogged persistence, a key characteristic to be explored in the chapter will be “grounded optimism.” As sustainability thought leader Gil Friend describes it, optimism needs the adjective to avoid melting into nothingness: “Not just ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ and ‘all will be well’—that’s the optimism—but also ‘this can work, for these reasons’ and ‘here’s what it will take,’ based on actual experience—that’s the ‘grounded’ part.”

I have cultivated grounded optimism for many years because I have seen it work. When I believe something will turn out o.k., very often others around me start to believe it too. When I look on the sunny side, experience the glass as half full, others around the negotiating table will as well, giving us all a strong foundation for positive results.

Yet optimism does not mean ignoring reality, so even I, the optimistic negotiator, must express deep disappointment with new airline website and kiosk regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) yesterday. This rulemaking process gave the Department the opportunity to provide to people with disabilities full and equal access to digital technology used by the airline industry. It was an opportunity sorely missed. That these rules have been kicking around the federal government for well over ten years make the deficits in the new rules even more troubling. (As far back as 2004 the DOT issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) recognizing the problem with inaccessible websites, but eventually refusing to require access.)

Even worse? In 2011 the Department of Transportation interfered with two federal lawsuits brought by the blind community seeking digital accessibility under state law. The DOT inserted themselves into the cases and argued that only the DOT could regulate airline kiosks and websites. Over strenuous legal objections, and despite courtrooms packed with blind travelers, the judges in both those lawsuits agreed with the DOT. The judges threw out of court two important cases, now on appeal, that could have substantially improved accessibility of airline websites and kiosks. Read more about the lawsuits seeking digital accessibility in the airline industry.

Here is a brief summary of the biggest problems with the new regulations. You can read them yourself by visiting the federal government regulations web page and entering DOT-OST-2011-0177 into the search box. On the results page you will be given the option of downloading them in either Word or PDF format. You should also be able to find the downloads by going directly to the federal government page dedicated to these regulations. You can also read the DOT Press Release about the new regulations. Let me know if you think there is cause for optimism.

Kiosks Can Be Made Accessible Today: Why Does Industry Need Ten Years?

The new DOT rules make a mockery of equal access when it comes to airline check-in kiosks. No retrofitting of existing kiosks is required, and airlines don’t even have to start purchasing accessible kiosks for three years. Then, they are given a gaping ten years before only 25% of their kiosks must be accessible. Is this excruciating long compliance period needed?

No. There are accessible airline kiosks on the market today, and they’ve been available for many years. The banking industry in the United States installed the first Talking ATMs in 1999, the post office has fully accessible self-service postal centers, and transit ticketing machines have met accessibility requirements for years.

Yet the DOT did not even have to look outside the airline industry. In 2011, IBM made a presentation to the U.S. Access Board Titled “IBM Accessible Air Travel Kiosk.” The IBM presentation, available on Slideshare, shows robust full-featured technology usable by all consumers. Airlines could have bought the machines in 2011; now they don’t need even a partially accessible fleet until 2023.

Airline Websites Should Have Been Accessible Years Ago. And what about Mobile?

The best news about the new DOT airline rules is that they use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA as the accessibility standard. But again, the rules give airlines too much time to meet this standard. The new rules allow covered airlines two years to make “core travel functions” accessible, and three years for full site accessibility. Some smaller airlines are exempted all together.

Why so much time? The airlines have known for years about the need for accessibility: complaints by customers with disabilities are frequent and the DOT has been talking about the subject for years. Companies large and small have been making their websites accessible for years, and WCAG 2.0 has been the standard since 2008. There was no need for a two and three year compliance period.

And in a classic case of federal regulations lagging instead of leading, the rules do not even mention mobile applications. Why not? Airlines are increasingly encouraging customers to use their mobile devices for air travel services. This makes sense, as it is the very nature of travel services that people are on-the-go when they are using them. For this reason, an airline’s digital functionality is obviously designed to be used when a customer is away from their computer, relying on their phone or tablet. Mobile applications can be made accessible, and basic non-discrimination principles of existing laws require that accessibility. Are we going to have to wait another ten years for airline mobile accessibility standards?

Other Resources

  • Visit the Airlines Category of LFLegal for summaries, with links, to all posts on this website about the Department of Transportation web and kiosk rules and the litigation against JetBlue Airways.
  • “Too Little Too Late” (Post by the American Foundation for the Blind about the new regulations)