Highlights of 2013: access in the air

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Friday, 20 December 2013 10:46am

As many of our readers prepare to jet off on summer holidays, people will be curious about how their access needs will be accommodated by airlines. A number of developments this year are changing the way we travel as well as the enjoyment of our air travel experience. Most developments are taking place in the USA as a result of the Air Carrier Access Act, which impacts strongly on Australia and the rest of the world.

In March 2013, amendments to the Air Carrier Access Act were introduced to the US Senate, requiring domestic and foreign air carriers to ensure that all visually displayed entertainment is accessible, including by making available captioning and audio description for people who are Deaf, hearing impaired, blind, or vision impaired.

The amendments would also require any individual touchscreens displaying entertainment or information include a mechanism allowing the operation of the display independently. The amendments’ introduction led to a Senate hearing that heard statements from people affected by the current state of in-flight audiovisual programming.

In a new rule of the Act that has come into effect on 12 December, airline website pages for booking and changing reservations will need to be accessible. Within two years, these pages must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA, with entire website compliance required within three years. This applies not just to American airlines, but also to all airlines traveling to the USA from Australia.

Rounding off the year, a timely inclusion in this highlights piece is the inaugural Air Travel Accessibility Conference which took place this week in Washington DC. Session topics included business cases for air travel by people with disabilities, creating a roadmap to accessible air travel for companies, and Flying Blind – access for people with vision impairments.

But even before we leave the ground, the ability to book tickets online is sometimes made difficult particularly for people with vision impairments. A UK investigation into the top 10 travel companies earlier this year revealed numerous findings that restricted the use of their websites. Although similar studies have not come to light from other countries, all travel websites could undoubtedly learn from the findings. At the least, accessible travel websites will help get people on their way to their destination.

Locally, Australian airlines continue to provide in-flight access accommodations through captioning on a range of content. Qantas has been the local leader in this field and Virgin Australia is set to introduce captioned movies early in the new year. This aside, the USA’s Air Carrier Access Act will impact accessible air travel worldwide.

Happy travels!

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