The National Federation of the Blind sued United Airlines, alleging that its airport kiosks in California lack audio interfaces, tactile keyboards or interactive screen reader technology and thus discriminate against blind people.
After conducting an apparently unfruitful dialogue with United since the Spring, the National Federation of the Blind filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of three plaintiffs, with the goal of having the suit certified as a class action.
The plaintiffs allege that United's operation of the kiosks violates the California Disabled Persons Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Act because kiosk services, including printing tickets and boarding passes, selecting seat assignments and booking upgrades, are inaccessible to blind passengers.
For example, plaintiff Michael May, president and CEO of Sendero Group, which develops accessible global positioning system and talking map software for the blind, has been unable independently to use United's airport kiosks in California, the suit alleges.
“Mr. May is faced with the dilemma of having to wait for a United employee to assist him with the check-in process, or having to provide sensitive, private information to a sighted stranger who can access the kiosks for him,” the suit states. “Both of these options are undesirable.”
The suit argues that United could readily install audio interfaces, tactile keyboards or interactive screen reader technology into its kiosks as other companies, including Amtrak, have done.
The National Federation for the Blind states no airlines, to its knowledge, have deployed accessible kiosk technology.
So, if other airlines haven't deployed accessible kiosks in California why didn't other airlines get sued, as well?
The National Federation of the Blind isn't saying precisely, but spokesman Chris Danielsen says:
I cannot comment on these questions other than to say that United will soon be the largest domestic air carrier due to its merger with Continental. It is important that the nation's largest air carrier -- and the one that touts itself as the official airline of the U.S. Paralympic Team -- implement accessible kiosk technology."
United has the resources to make these changes, the lawsuit alleges, because kiosks only cost United about $8,000 per unit and one employee can operate five to seven kiosks, a large savings in labor costs.
The National Federation of the Blind, based in Baltimore, Md., has some 50,000 members.
The lawsuit says the federation engaged in a dialogue with United about the issue since April 2010, but the plaintiffs received an email Oct. 12 from United stating the airline "cannot give [plaintiffs] a timeline, nor enter into any Structured Negotiations Agreement."
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the way in which United operates its kiosks discriminates against the blind, an injunction barring the airline from allegedly violating California law, damages and attorneys fees.
United didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the suit.