Sept. 24, 2011 -- The Transportation Department wants to require airlines to make their websites and airport kiosks more accessible to the disabled.
The proposed regulation — made Monday following years of complaints by travelers with disabilities about getting tickets on flights — is similar to a proposal made in 2004 that airlines and travel agents resisted because of the cost and complexity of the changes.
The new proposal calls for the airlines to make their websites accessible to blind people for reservations and check-ins within a year. The airlines would have two years to make the rest of their websites more accessible.
Websites that market U.S. flights also would have to upgrade, although small travel agencies would be exempt.
Under the proposed rule, airlines would also have to upgrade airport kiosks that print boarding passes or baggage tags accessible with braille, audio messages and screens visible 40 inches off the floor. The upgrades to kiosks would apply as airlines replace machines during the next decade.
"I strongly believe that airline passengers with disabilities should have equal access to the same services as all other travelers," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in announcing the proposed regulation.
More than 15 million adults have disabilities with vision, hearing or mobility, according to the Census Bureau, and nearly one-third travel by air.
The advocacy group Paralyzed Veterans of America welcomed the kiosk proposal, saying people with vision and physical impairments have been unable to read screens too high off the ground or use touch-screen functions.
Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, argued that airlines are "openly discriminating" when not using the most accessible technology.
"It is critical for blind people to be able to buy tickets, check in, print boarding passes and select seats independently," Maurer said.
A rule that took effect in May 2008 required airlines to discount tickets for disabled passengers who had to make reservations by phone or in person. Airlines had to provide assistance to disabled passengers who couldn't use their kiosks.
Parts of that rulemaking were hotly debated for years, with 1,300 comments. The Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, argued at the time it would cost each airline at least $200,000 to upgrade their website, plus tens of thousands more each year in maintenance.
Steve Lott, an association spokesman, said the group is still reviewing the newest proposal.
The administration estimates that tens of millions of dollars spent upgrading websites and kiosks would be offset by having more disabled customers buy tickets and saving the time of airline employees.
The proposed rule will be published this week in the Federal Register, with 60 days for public comment at www.regulations.gov.