Decade of failure for airlines on website access


newslatestWebsites for five of the UK’s top airlines are still “difficult and frustrating” to use for their disabled customers, 11 years after they were found to be failing to meet minimum accessibility standards.

The technology and disability charity AbilityNet published results of a survey this week which showed that, of the top 12 carriers and holiday companies, only one met the base level of access requirements needed to research travel and accommodation options and make flight or holiday reservations.

All five of the companies that were also surveyed by AbilityNet in 2003 – British Airways, EasyJet, Ryanair, Monarch and Virgin Atlantic – still have “significant issues” with their website access, according to the new report.

One of them, Virgin Atlantic, even issued a statement in 2003 apologising for its failings, admitting that it was “currently letting down our disabled customers”, and stating that it had set up a “programme of changes to make the Virgin Atlantic website more accessible”.

The new report concludes: “A decade after AbilityNet first reviewed the country’s top airlines for website accessibility and usability, it appears that little if anything has improved, despite huge advances in technology and provision for disabled people in general.”

Of the other seven carriers and holiday companies surveyed in the new report – Carnival, Club Med, First Choice, Qantas, Saga, STA Travel and Thomas Cook – only Club Med met the basic level of accessibility.

And all 12 sites – including Club Med – had some significant usability and design problems that prevented disabled people from being able to use their services “effectively”.

On some sites, disabled users took more than an hour to book a flight or holiday, and on others they were unable to complete the process at all.

Sites were assessed using automated tools, and by AbilityNet’s disabled testers, while AbilityNet experts also looked for the presence of best practice accessibility help features.

The panel of testers used access technologies such as magnification software, screen readers, or text-to-speech software, as well as using the keyboard instead of the mouse to navigate the screen.

Robin Christopherson, AbilityNet’s head of digital inclusion, told Disability News Service: “The airline websites included in the report were also reviewed over a decade ago and it is disheartening to note that little if anything has changed in all those years.

“Whilst we have seen significant leaps in technology and a proliferation of choice in how customers can access the internet and online services, still the basic level of website accessibility remains unchanged.

“Still over 90 per cent of sites remain difficult or impossible for disabled and older customers with the same rights and money to spend as their family and friends.”

Virgin Atlantic said it was “currently in the process of procuring an accessibility audit on our website, which we aim to have completed by the end of the year”, and added: “Once the audit is complete we will be working to ensure the entire website is fully AA compliant as outlined in the WCAG [Web Content Accessibility Guidelines] by December 2015.”

EasyJet said it was “always looking at ways to improve the accessibility of the site”, and added: “Our programme of continuous improvement includes conducting regular audits of the website, plans for more in-depth research with people who have diverse needs in order to advise us of any practical issues for users, as well as a dedicated accessibility help page which will be launched soon.”

Monarch said it was “constantly reviewing our website and our online booking process and making changes and improvements to improve accessibility to our customers, which continues to remain on our agenda”.

British Airways said: “We work very closely with our customers with disabilities, and with groups such as AbilityNet, to help us identify what we do well and what we could do to improve our service levels further, and we will continue to do so.”

Ryanair said it offered “a live chat facility on our website to assist customers with their bookings” and had “undertaken a usability audit of our new website, which we will continue to improve”.

But none of these five airlines – all of which were also surveyed in 2003 – have been able to explain why their sites are still inaccessible 11 years later.

Meanwhile, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published a new guide to air travel for disabled passengers.

The leaflet describes what services disabled people can expect from airlines, travel companies and airports, and what facilities they are legally obliged to provide.

The guide has been developed with the Civil Aviation Authority and endorsed by the Department for Transport and travel organisations, is available from airports, travel companies and disability organisations, and can also be downloaded from the EHRC website.

31 July 2014