Better web access for customers with disabilities is more than a regulatory requirement: it’s an ethical and business imperative

10 September 2015

In his bestselling book ‘Don't Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability’, author Steve Krug says the only real reason for investing in website accessibility is because it’s profoundly the right thing to do. And it’s the right thing to do because of the way it can make people lives better to an extraordinary degree.

To grasp what he means, just consider this simple fact. Any visually-impaired person with access to a computer can now read almost any newspaper or magazine in the world on their own. For many millions of people worldwide, this represents an improvement in their lives that’s not just dramatic, but seismic.

Now air industry regulators in the US are looking to extend similar benefits to all airline customers with disabilities. Amendments have been made to the US Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to ensure a high-level of accessibility for any passenger booking online or using an airport kiosk. This gives an extra level of protection and inclusion to passengers with physical and mental disabilities wishing to book travel on US airlines and overseas-owned airlines operating services in the US.

To comply, airlines’ websites must achieve Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA Compliance by the 12th December 2015 across seven core functions, ranging from booking a reservation to accessing flight status information and frequent flyer accounts. Level AA Compliance across the entire website is required one year later. Airlines failing to meet these deadlines may face fines amounting to millions of dollars.

It’s all too easy for air carriers – especially legacy airlines who grew up in the pre-internet age – to regard these new ACAA requirements as a regulatory imposition. But in reality ACAA is doing the industry a service, by forcing it to move now to confront an issue that will ultimately affect all industries – and to take steps that will generate huge long-term business benefits for airlines themselves.

To explain why I say this, here’s a bit of context. On the customer side, figures from the World Health Organisation say 15% of the world's population – about one billion people – are living with disabilities of some kind. So any business that doesn’t ensure its websites are fully accessible for people with disabilities risks excluding a huge slice of its potential customer base. And it’s vital to build this accessibility into the original design, since it’s much harder and more expensive to retrofit it once a site is up and running.

Meanwhile, on the business side, more and more industries are facing penalties for failing to ensure people with disabilities have the accessibility they need and deserve. TV stations in the US have been fined for not offering subtitles on shows. And in March this year, BT was fined £800,000 by Ofcom following delays in the launch of a text-to-speech service to help people with speech or hearing impairments.

So the airline industry is not alone – and the need to improve accessibility for people with disabilities is not just regulatory, but ethical and commercial as well. However, for the airlines that have to meet the December deadline for ACAA compliance, the challenge of achieving compliance within that timeframe is now increasingly urgent.

So, if an airline has not yet focused sufficient attention on this challenge, what does it need to do now? Two things. First, have your websites fully assessed through a combination of automated and – more especially – human testing, to highlight and pinpoint the accessibility issues you need to address to comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA. And second, make changes to put those issues right and meet the standard.

At PwC, our web usability team provides clients in all industries with an end-to-end, integrated service covering all these requirements, from assessment to remediation. And it’s hardly surprising that we’re currently seeing a surge in demand from airlines.

One day, all industries will have to meet web accessibility requirements just as rigorous as those being introduced under ACAA. So the new regulations are helping put airlines ahead of the game compared to other sectors. But being in the vanguard in this important area will be of little comfort to any airline that finds itself fined for non-compliance.

If you have even the slightest concern that this could happen to you, then you should give us a call. At the very least, we’ll set your mind at rest. At most, we could save you millions in fines – and avoid the media furore and reputational damage that such penalties would also bring.

Gianpiero Di Gianvittorio | Senior Manager, Consulting
Email | +44(0)20 780 43017