United’s Check-in Kiosks Really Aren’t That Useful to Sighted People, Either….

The National Federation for the Blind has initiated a class action lawsuit against United Airlines because United’s check-in kiosks cannot be used by blind passengers.

The complaint itself was shot over to me via Twitter.

The lawsuit alleges violations of California law and I’m not familiar with the nuances of the California Disabled Persons Act or California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. So I can’t speak to this as a matter of law.

But this seems rather frivolous to me. To wit, Mr. Easy Check-in as I’ve long called him is really not all that useful to passengers to begin with. In fact, I don’t recall the last time I used him, and I am fully capable of seeing and using his screens. I use united.bomb and their airport personnel. Who are fully available to assist blind persons.

Ultimately it does not appear that the lawsuit even alleges that a single blind person has been denied transportation on United Airlines as a result inaccessible kiosks.

Instead, what’s the inconvenience? According to the press release,

Michael Hingson, a blind motivational speaker and president and owner of a technology sales company, said: “I have traveled throughout the United States and the world for my public speaking engagements and as a technology sales representative, yet I cannot independently check in at the airport.

Independently. At the airport.

So the passenger can check in. They can even check in on their own through the website.

They just cannot check in without the assistance of a United agent at the airport.

Meanwhile, this claim in the press release seems just wrong:

Instead of enjoying the features and convenience of these kiosks, including a quicker and more convenient check-in process, blind passengers must wait in long lines at the ticket counter, even when they have already purchased their tickets and checked in online.

Since when do passengers have to wait at a ticket counter when they’ve checked in online? Perhaps if they’ve checked bags, but then they have to wait even if they’re using a kiosk, unless of course they use curbside baggage drop.

Now don’t get me wrong, perhaps United could and should roll out more advanced kiosks in future releases that incorporate “audio interface, a tactile keyboard, or interactive screen reader technology.”

It just seems far-fetched that their failure to do so to date justifies a class action lawsuit.

(HT: @pyyhkala)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I agree with you Gary, this is seems to almost be a waste of time and resources. Besides, why would you want to use the easy-chickens? All they’ve done for me is try to trick me into paying for premier travel or etc. even though I’m already a 1K.

  2. Not sure about California, but up here in Canada a kiosk with an audio interface would likely violate some sort of privacy legislation and thus become the target of, you guessed it, a class action lawsuit.

  3. I disagree with you. People who have disabilities should get reasonable accommodations. It is both federal and state law. The cost is minimal. And yes — it is not necessarily easy for a blind person to navigate a strange airport, but that doesn’t mean the airline should be off the hook to get the job done.

  4. The reasons blind passengers must still wait in line even if they have checked in on-line include: they need their boarding pass printed, they need updated flight information, they need to make seating changes, they need to get assistance to their gate or make other requests, etc. All of this is or could be handled by the kiosks. Furthermore, accessible kiosks would not violate privacy; like ATM’s that blind people now use regularly, they would be equipped with a headphone jack into which the blind passenger would plug his or her earbuds. What does violate the passenger’s privacy is the fact that, to save time, some blind people do get assistance with using the kiosks rather than waiting in line for an agent; but to use them, they wind up sharing their credit card information or PIN with someone else, sometimes a total stranger who isn’t even an airline employee. Finally, it seems likely that, since most passengers prefer the kiosks despite the assertions in this post, United and other air carriers will migrate an increasing number of functions to these devices and eventually eliminate the use of agents entirely. The kiosks must be accessible when that happens.

  5. Jeff said, “People who have disabilities should get reasonable accommodations.”

    Well of course. And those reasonable accomodations are online checkin, the check-in counter, or having an agent assist with the kiosk – all things that United does today.

  6. I travel on about 50 to 75 flight segments a year on various airlines including United, and would benefit if kiosks were accessible.

    I do utilize tools such as online web checkin, and more recently where its available, mobile phone boarding passes. However, like sighted people, “most” blind people do not have a smart phone and/or the required assistive technology to use mobile boarding passes.

    I can think of several scenarios when I would prefer to use the kiosk but am unable to because United has not made them accessible:
    1. Return Trip: I can’t think of a trip when I brought a printer with me that eg would allow me to check in online and print my boarding pass. Thus when I need to check in for a return flight, as the press release notes, I am faced with several less than ideal options similar to the individually named plaintiffs. I also have no desire to start carrying around a printer;
    2. Saving Documents: Sometimes I need or want to save travel documents such as boarding passes, receipts, etc. It is commonly reported on Flyertalk that pax due OLCI and then reprint their boarding pass at the kiosk. The kiosk printed boarding pass and receipt documents are smaller and easier to store and transport than an 8.5×11 piece of paper;
    3. Flight Changes & Irregular Operations: I imagine that kiosks either do or will have capabilities such as listing for a standby flight, changing flights, or rebooking during irregular operations. Blind people have the right to access these available self service tools.
    4. Volunteer Lists: Whenever I fly UA I like to list as a VDB volunteer. I understand the kiosk prompts certain pax to be added to the volunteer list;
    5. Upgrades: I understand the kiosk has certain logic that it uses to process upgrades based on certificates, payment, or miles;
    6. Seat Assignment Changes: Like anyone else I may wish to view the seat map on an aircraft to select a seat. If I checked in 24 hours before at home, and get to the airport 1 hour before departure, its possible that additional seats may open up, eg freed up by pax who got on earlier flights or elites that got upgrades.
    7. Future Enhancements: There are any number of future enhancements that UA or other carriers may add to their kiosks. I know for instance that CO does or did sell CO Currency through kiosks which allows you to purchase items on the aircraft.

    Blind people have an inherent civil right to access goods and services that are delivered through technology platforms. It is not good enough that we be given some sort of separate but not equal method for accessing any good or service.

    Lets take bank ATM machines as an example. There have been several court cases which have brought about national accessibility to bank ATM machines. Most bank owned ATM machines now have a headset jack which provides an audio spoken user interface. Anyone can try this with a standard headset.

    It is not acceptable to tell the blind that we must only have access to banking, say in the branches with a teller. Or to tell us that we have to find a friend or stranger to help us use the ATM. Those two options and others are not as convenient, and they don’t provide the same level of accessibility and usability. But I can see if you just think about it quickly, you might just infer that these inferior options are suitable.

    In just the right set of circumstances and conditions at some times only, these inferior options, may sort of work. But they are by no means an acceptable standard or standard operating procedure.

    Amtrak has also deployed accessible kiosks systemwide. I have benefitted by using these kiosks on repeated occasions in stations throughout the country. Like anyone else, I can quickly go up to the kiosk, and complete my transaction. It would be significantly more inconvenient if I only was able to complete Amtrak transactions through ticket agents or if I had to ask an employee or stranger to help me with the kiosk.

    I also worke dwith AirCell to bring about accessibility to the Gogo Inflight WiFi system. The system originally used an inaccessible visual only captcha.

    Now watch out? What is the quick wrong kneff jerk answer? Sure, its that I could just get someone to read me the captcha on the plane. In many cases, this is both inconvenient and not practical. It might be practical if say I were in first in an aisle on a not very crowded flight and happened to get a tech savvy flight attendant. It would not be practical at all on certain devices that blind people use which do not have screens instead using Braille output and spoken screen reader software.

    After quite some time, I won’t tell you the long story now, the company added a very robust solutio to the accessibility issue. When you are on the GoGoInFlight captcha page you see a “Visually Impaired” link. It takes you to a page that prompts you with a logic question like
    chair, cat, dog, horse
    Which one is not an animal?

    Or
    What is 6-2

    The AirCell GoGoInFlight system is now fully accessible to both blind and deaf blind users either using a screen reader or a refreshable Braille display.

    Does the accessibility effort only benefit the blind? No, certainly others with limited vision or other issues using the captcha will find this alternative helpful. Incidentally this is often the case. Organizations cry, whine, and scream about having to implement accessibility solutions. Corporations exagerate how much the accessibility solutions will cost. In the end, universal design eg accessibility benefits not only people with disabilities but any user. Take, for instance, talking caller id?

    In the year 2010 things like access to a kiosk are somewhat similar to say in 1990 when the Americans With Disabilities Act required that so-called (legal jargon) “places of public accommodation,” be made accessible to people with disabilities. This included where applicable changes to construction and building codes such as adding wheelchair ramps or elevators for people with physical disabilities.

    In 2010 for the nations blind, modifications like accessible kiosks, accessible airline web sites, accessible in flight entertainment systems (think VX RED) are largely equivalent modifications that will increasingly be required by laws and through the courts. Again blind people don’t want or deserve a 2nd or 3rd class experience.

    Making these machines accessible is also more readily achievable than ever. Look at for example the Apple iPhone 4, iPOD, or Macintosh. With each of these products Apple includes a built in screen reader called VoiceOver. You can press command-F5 on any modern Mac to call up VoiceOver. Also every modern copy of Windows has a very rudimentary screen reader called Narrator. Start, Run, Narrator

  7. @Mika Pyyhkala As I said, it may well be that United should make its kiosks more accessible.

    I don’t know the costs involved, I wouldn’t hold out Amtrak as a shining example of much of anything. And I don’t resent efforts to accomodate folks that are blind.

    Could it be simply a matter of consciousness raising? Great. I’m lamenting civil matters turning to the courts, and no I do not see this as a civil rights issue.

    Specifically:
    1. Return trip. I don’t see why you need to carry a printer to print your return boarding passes. I don’t carry a printer to print mine yet I almost always still print them, usually at my hotel. Still, if you cannot print you can still check in, I don’t see why this becomes a civil rights issue.

    2. Smaller boarding passes. You like the card stock from the kiosks. Card stock vs 8.5 x 11 cannot possibly be a civil rights issue, and if you want card stock bad enough have a replacement printed at the gate if you don’t want it printed at checkin counters.

    3. Irrops, you’re not missing out on much at the kiosks when the best work is done by phone, in a lounge (if you have access), and not standing in long lines as most customers do.

    4. Volunteer lists, you can ask any agent to add you, most add themselves at the gate.

    5. Upgrades, kiosks do not assign upgrade priority. That claim is just false.

    6. Seat changes after checkin, again this is hardly a civil rights issue but you can change your seat at the gate.

    7. Future enhancements. Then perhaps your rights will be violated in the future, sue then, but you can hardly claim civil rights violations now based on what new capabilities will develop in the future.

    Again, perhaps United should improve their kiosk technology. In a lot of ways, really. But as a matter of law, and class action lawsuits? Surely not.

  8. @Gary

    Fortunately you are able to print your boarding pass at your hotel because you are able to use a computer that may be provided say near the front desk or in a business center. In most cases, these computers are locked down in such a way as to make them inaccessible to the blind. I have tried for instance to press WindowsKey+U or Start-R narrator on many of these public computers and it usually does not work. This could either be because there is no sound, they administratively inhibit the run command, or any other number of technical issues.

    You do bring up an interesting and important point about whether accessibility is some kind of charity or a civil right?

    The disability and specifically blind community does not view accessibility as something akin to charity, or something we maybe should or shouldn’t have.

    Technology Accessibility to me as a blind person is akin to a wheelchair ramp for someone with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair.

    You also bring up the question of why the courts are involved?

    Believe me, before any organization like NFB sues an organization like United or JetBlue (the other similar lawsuit) such organizations try to negotiate an ammicable settlement with the company. This saves resources, time, effort, and can sometimes be quicker and more efficient for both.

    However, if organizations like JetBlue and United stonewall, stall, delay, fail to deliver, tangible solutions to the accessibility issue the courts are the next best step.

    What alternative do we have? Just wait for United? If we don’t press the issue, United may never respond.

    I know that for people outside this accessibility niche the whole thing is new, and I’m sure at first glance this notion of accessibility as a civil right is a may sound like a new idea.

    I mentioned some other contextual examples like Amtrak and bank machines, also you have things like closed captioning for the deaf, and increasingly you will see described video narration for the blind.

    There are also mandates that publishers make their textbooks accessible, among many others.

    I think sometimes people also get caught up in thinking that unless a company like United “denies transportation,” there is no civil rights violation. But civil rights also have to do with the user experience, and are not just about such denial events.

    United for example could not require black people to check in at the counters on the left and white people counters on the right, even though in this scenario presumably you could fly regardless of which check in counter you used. Lets also add that somehow the counters on the left were more convenient or plentiful in some situations (kiosks).

    United also cannot locate its kiosks such that eg they all are too high to be reached by someone in a wheelchair.

    It sounds nice to just leave all this to the free market, but unfortunately, the free market has failed miserably to innovate in the accessibility space. Even Apple, a shining star in the accessibility space, was helped along shall we say by our Attorney General in Massachusetts. Fortunately since then Apple has exceeded what they were required to do and has largely and broadly added accessibility to their products eg all iPhones since the 3GS. iOS 4 even works with refreshable Braille displays for input and output. Apple however is the exception to the rule. Even though its possible technically, most large companies have not embraced accessibility until they were compelled to do so by law or by the court or through strong public relations pressure.

    So I’m sorry to have to tell you if we just “raise consciousness,” about the issue, which sounds like a great idea, I’m afraid United won’t act.

  9. Gary, I am confused by your admission that you aren’t familiar with the California laws involved, but nevertheless you go on to opine that this is not a civil rights issue (a legal concept). The Unruh CIVIL RIGHTS Act requires United to make its accommodations and facilities fully and equally accessible. They have not complied with this civil rights law because kiosks cannot be used by the blind. Separate but unequal (or even equal) is impermissible, so alternative modes of checking in are entirely besides the point. United has elected to use kiosks, mostly because of the immense labor savings over using employees, so they have a legal obligation to make them accessible. And from a practical standpoint, go ask IBM what their accessible kiosk costs compared to the inaccessible ones United is using. It is very modest. United knows that, has had the ability to use the accessible kiosks for some time, and yet refuses to comply with the law. That is called discrimination, which is as much a civil rights issue as anything you can name.

  10. @Concerned, you write “Gary, I am confused by your admission that you aren’t familiar with the California laws involved, but nevertheless you go on to opine that this is not a civil rights issue (a legal concept)”

    Quite the contrary, I was pointing out that there may well be a viable claim under the law but that’s entirely different from whether it’s a civil rights issue (a moral, not a legal, concept).

  11. @Mika Pyyhkala you offer a false dichotomy between charity and civil rights. My point here is that the lawsuit never claims anyone was unable to travel as promised as a result of United’s failure to make their kiosks accessible to the blind. There really ought not to be a legal claim. There may be a strong moral reason for United to do this. Or they may be strong business reasons to do this (if their agents are spending a great deal of time helping the blind it may save $$$ to have those customers use kiosks). But that’s not the same thing as charity.

    To compare United’s kiosks to the great civil rights struggles demeans those truly morally significant undertakings and progress.

  12. The technology exists now to make almost everything accessible to people with disabilities, including blind people. Some conscious companies have demonstrated this fact repeatedly. The issue of accessibility is not usually one of cost or technical impossibility, rather, it is one of choice. Will companies choose to include all customers, or leave some out in the cold because they have a disability?

    Since the technology exists to be accessible, the issue really does come down to human rights. If a company wouldn’t discriminate against African-Americans, women or others based on gender or race, why would it continue to lock out people with disabilities?

  13. @Darrell Shandrow writes “Since the technology exists to be accessible, the issue really does come down to human rights.” The conclusion simply doesn’t follow the supporting claim.

  14. Just curious, can any of the posters indicate which airlines do offer kiosk’s that are configured for the blind or those with other physical disabilities?

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