Three California blind residents, frequent travelers on United Airlines, have filed a class action lawsuit against the airline. The suit centers on UA’s EZ Check-In Machines (aka Mr. Chickens) and whether the touchscreen interface unfairly prohibits blind passengers from taking advantage of this technology.
The suit alleges that United is violating the California Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act because the services it provides through these kiosks are not available to blind passengers. United could easily add an audio interface, a tactile keyboard, or interactive screen reader technology that works with touchscreens to its kiosks, as other companies have done.
Not so fast. Can a blind person not check-in at the airport? Can a blind person not request an upgrade, change a seat, print a receipt, or perform any of the other tasks UA’s check-in machines do? Airports still do have live agents, most of whom are more than happy to assist. I don’t even like to use the machines, preferring the personal touch of an agent, many of whom I have come to know on a personal basis.
Then there’s the following statement by Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind:
…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…
Huh? First, if a passenger has already checked in online and knows that the airport is going to be a hassle why not print your BPs at home so you can avoid the check-in lines all together? And with UA’s new paperless mobile BPs, you don’t even need a printer anymore, just send them to your mobile phone.
But that aside, my first reading of the lawsuit evoked this reaction: the blind are not being denied any services by the United. Every service offered by UA’s check-in machines is available to the blind by other means. But is this all that is required by California law? I’ll get to that in a moment.
Now I know this is going to sound harsh and may evoke some criticism, but bear with me. Take this statement below from Michael Hingson, a blind motivational speaker and owner of a technology sales company:
It frustrates me, as a frequent traveler and United passenger, that I must wait for a United employee to assist me with the kiosk, seek help from a sighted passenger (in which case I must share sensitive private information with a total stranger), or else stand in a long line in order to complete the airport check-in process. I hope that this lawsuit will serve as a wake-up call to United and that the airline will swiftly make its kiosks accessible."
Sorry pal. If you’re such a frequent United customer, than you get to avoid the long lines (which often aren’t all that long) and use premium check-in anyway.
What’s next? Suing because you have to use an escalator when you prefer to use an elevator to go upstairs because it saves you 30 seconds?
While I really, honestly do empathize with the blind, I fail to understand nor appreciate why they have decided to single out United and throw a temper tantrum over an issue of convenience, rather than an issue of service.
But my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s the law that matters and my reading of the California law suggests that the blind have a fair shot at prevailing over UA. Take California Code §51(a):
All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, marital status, or sexual orientation are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.
I don’t think it could much clearer that using an EZ Check-In machine is counts as an "advantage" in a business establishment. It may not save much time, but it does save a few minutes and is certainly an advantage to those who wish to avoid personal interaction.
Then there is §54.9(a) California Disabled Persons Act:
On and after January 1, 2009, a manufacturer or distributor of touch-screen devices used for the purpose of self-service check-in at a hotel or at a facility providing passenger transportation services shall offer for availability touch-screen self-service check-in devices that contain the necessary technology.
This clearly states that the next-generation check-in machines must be fully accessible, but it doesn’t say anything about United’s machines, all of which were produced before 2009.
That only leaves the Americans with Disabilities Act, which UA also must abide by. Although the act currently does not require self-service, touch-screen kiosks to be ADA-compliant, the Justice Department announced in July that it was considering new regulations mandating that the type of machines that are at the center of this lawsuit become ADA-compliant.
So here’s the bottom line: UA may not have to re-tool their EZ Check-In machines…yet. But that will depend on how a judge interprets §51(a). As you might have ascertained from my cynicism above, I think the lawsuit is frivolous and blind passengers are not deprived of any service that is available to others, only a particular method of service that arguably is not any more convenient.
Having said all that, the lawsuit alleges that UA could easily and inexpensively update their check-in machines to accommodate the blind. If this is indeed the case, I think it would serve UA well to do so. In fact, they should have done so already. UA has an admirable record when it comes to serving passengers with disabilities and is the the official airline U.S. Paralympic Team. Not only would a press release tomorrow stating they were updating all check-in machines bolster their image and demonstrate compassion, but United would be proactively taking care of something they will eventually have to do anyway and fostering a more compassionate society.
Anyone look at this matter differently than I do?