A trio of blind airline passengers frustrated by a lack of easy check-in options have filed suit against United Airlines, claiming the airline has refused to use decades-old technology to aide their visually impaired customers.
"A lawsuit is a last resort," said Michael May, a California business owner named as one of the plaintiff's in the suit. "I like to use the carrot rather than the stick, but when the carrot doesn't work you're left with no alternative."
The lawsuit was filed last week in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California by the National Federation of the Blind on behalf of May, Michael Hingson and Tina Thomas.
The trio claims that United's ticketing kiosks, installed by the thousands to reduce the airline's labor force and make the check-in process faster, are impossible for blind customers to use independently and that the airline has stonewalled them on upgrading the technology.
"The machines use exclusively visual computer screen prompts and touch-screen navigation to guide a customer through a transaction," the lawsuit claims, noting that no translation service for the blind exists.
And when the gate changes or travel delays force ticketing adjustments, "I have to rely on strangers or try to hunt down airline personnel," said Thomas, a substitute teacher and a member of the U.S. Paralympic judo team. "It takes longer while everyone else … it takes 10 minutes and they're done."
"I would like to make a change in the way passengers are treated when we fly," said Thomas, 41.
Baltimore attorney Daniel Goldstein, outside counsel for the National Federation of the Blind, said the technology for voice-prompted kiosks has been around longer than the kiosks themselves.
"Basically what it requires is text to speech software that will enable non-visual control," Goldstein said, "and that's been around in one form or another since the late '60s."
Goldstein said the NFB has been in talks with United since May 2009 about either retrofitting their current machines or accelerating the schedule for replacing kiosks to get upgraded machines into the airports faster.
"For awhile we obviously thought there was an interest in resolving this, but that did not prove ultimately to be case," he said.
The airline's merger with Continental, he said, was one of the reasons the Federation was given as to why the airline couldn't make such a major commitment.
United Airlines declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but issued a statement reading, "United Airlines is committed to providing quality service to all of our customers and to remaining in full compliance with the Air Carrier Access Act. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind."
May, who travels several times a month and has memorized the layouts of his most frequented airports, said that he's found United's staff to be accommodating and courteous in all other respects.
"I've flown 110,000 miles with them so far this year," he said. "But it's when things are late and people are frustrated and getting irritable."
Goldstein admitted that United is not alone in not providing voice-assisted technology at kiosks. In fact none of the airlines do, he said.
Though he wouldn't say why United was chosen specifically, Federation spokesman Chris Danielsen hinted at a strategy.
"United, especially once the merger with Continental is completed, I think it's going to be the largest airline in the country." he said. "It would really set a good example if the largest airline in the country would implement accessible kiosks."
Like May, Thomas said that aside from the kiosks and getting her gate information, she can independently navigate her way around airports.
"I think we've taken a lot of great strides in having information accessible; however, we haven't gotten to where everything is accessible," she said. "That's a slow process because change doesn't happen overnight."
Goldstein, who is not sight impaired but has represented the Federation for more than two decades, said the problem isn't finding technology to assist the blind, but making sure corporations use it.
"Technology should have made it much easier for blind people to compete on an equal basis, get the same education, engage in the same social activities," he said. "But what happens is that technology gets designed or developed without any thought of non-visual access."
"If you're blind today, ironically in some respects, you're going to be more isolated and more dependent than you once were," he said.
May, who was blinded in a chemical explosion at age 3 and was the subject of a 2007 book, "Crashing Through," about the stem cell treatment that partially restored his vision in 2000, said life "light years better in general" for the blind than it was decades ago.
"But some things," he said, "it's two steps forward and one step back."