New DOT Rules Means Greater Access for Air Travelers

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In the mid-1920s Juan Trippe set out to establish an airline network with the goal of linking America to the world. With the birth of his airline, Pan American World Airways, he found success, linking Los Angeles to Shanghai and Boston to London. From then on the world became smaller and more accessible to Americans. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN, had a goal of linking scientists in universities and institutions worldwide. With the invention of the World Wide Web he found success and the world became smaller and information became more accessible.  Today, in a world where we rely on Mr. Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web to conduct everyday functions like booking airline tickets, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has set a goal to make air travel accessible to all travelers including those with disabilities.

In a major effort toward this goal, DOT has implemented new rules as part of their continuing implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stated in a press release on the DOT website, “All air travelers should be treated fairly when they fly, regardless of any disabilities they may have.” Foxx continued to explain, “These new rules build on our past work in ensuring that our air transportation system is accessible for everyone, while balancing both airlines’ and passengers’ need for flexibility.”

The new rules require that airline websites and automated airport kiosks are accessible to travelers with disabilities. Airlines will need to make the pages of their websites that contain core travel information and services accessible to people with disabilities within two years. All pages must be made accessible within three years. The measure of accessibility will be the widely accepted Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). The WCAG 2.0 guidelines have become a standard for many websites in the US and around the world. In fact, Section 508, the US Federal Government guidelines for web accessibility, is expected to require WCAG 2.0 AA compliance in an upcoming refresh.   

The new DOT rules will also affect travel agents. It requires that agents disclose and offer any discount fares that are available on the website to customers unable to access the site due to a disability. This must start within 180 days of the rule's effective date. Moreover, the current DOT rule, which requires airlines to provide an equivalent service for customers who are unable use inaccessible websites, will be expanded to require the same thing even if the website meets the WCAG accessibility standards.

The automated kiosks installed at U.S. airports also need to be accessible.  Any newly installed kiosks must be accessible until at least twenty-five percent of all kiosks in any given location are accessible. In any case, twenty-five percent of all kiosks at each airport must be accessible within ten years. Accessibility of the kiosks will be measured using the standards set by the U.S. Department of Justice for ATM and fare machines in its 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the Section 508 standards for self-contained closed products, such as copiers will be used.

As Americans continue to rely on the web to perform everyday functions like shopping, banking and travel, web accessibility rises to the surface as a growing concern. In addition to individuals who are born with a disability or acquire one at a young age the aging population’s likelihood of acquiring a disability increases the older they become, making web accessibility important for everyone. It is because of this that the new DOT rules are a natural and necessary progression of the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986, and something we will all likely benefit from now or in the future.  

Next Steps for airline websites:

  1. Conduct an accessibility audit of the website to identify areas where WCAG 2.0 AA is not met.
  2. Work with user experience, design and technical teams to fix the accessibility issues.
  3. Perform quality assurance testing to ensure that the accessibility issues have been fixed.
  4. Test with assistive technology like JAWS and ZoomText to ensure that people with disabilities can use these tools effectively with the website.

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