Airline Booking: Navigating an Inaccessible Experience

By Michael Taylor on Jan 31, 2024
Topics: Web Accessibility, Mobile Apps, User Experience

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Today’s blog will be about trying to help someone purchase airline tickets for a last-minute trip. The accessibility of the site in question was possibly the worst that I have ever encountered. This says a lot because I have used numerous websites with bad accessibility in the past. In the remainder of this post, I will bring the reader on this unsuccessful journey to buy plane tickets. Like always, I will cover screen reader accessibility or lack thereof.

Buckle up, everyone, because this will be a bumpy ride.

Lacking Links

Since the plane trip was a last-minute decision, only a few airlines had flight availability for the requested dates and times. I chose the airline with the historically best prices and proceeded to the website to browse ticket options. When I arrived at the homepage, I began my usual procedure of exploring the site to familiarize myself with the general layout of the user interface. It was at this point that I became aware of a significant problem right off the bat. As I moved through the page using manual keyboard navigation, the only thing that my screen reader would say was “Link.” No text was read aloud, no images were announced, and no action or navigation buttons were spoken. Every detectable web element was called “Link.”

I set my screen reader to filter by button, heading, text field, and image. This did not work either. In each instance, the screen reader said, “No Items Found.” At this point, I knew this would be a disaster. However, I had a slim hope that this issue would only affect the home page, and I wanted to figure out how to proceed to the next step.

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Creative Conversion

Sometimes, I must get creative to overcome accessibility challenges like these. I needed to figure out a way to understand enough about the home page to move on to the next step. I took a screen capture of the website and ran it through an OCR text extraction application. I then imported the resulting plain text into a word processor document. While these conversions are far from perfect and often only about 50 percent accurate, I could at least get a general idea of the text and links that appeared on the airline’s homepage. From what I could determine, the fourth link was marked as “Book Your Flight.”

In theory, if I return to the site and move down from the top of the page, activating the fourth “Link” would bring me to the ticket-buying process. However, this relies on one critical assumption: each element that my screen reader announces as a “link” is a link, not some other mistaken interface component.

Before I proceed, I want to mention one thing. This example only illustrates some of the methods that assistive technology users like myself must use to circumvent accessibility blockers. These strategies are by no means a replacement for accessibility compliance. Users should not have to jump through hoops to access a digital experience equally.

→ Click here to use AQA and find out if your website is accessible. 

Language Limits

Keeping my fingers crossed that the site’s accessibility would improve, I moved down the homepage to the fourth link and activated it. Once the next page loaded, I immediately began to explore. Unfortunately, there was no improvement. The screen reader again could only speak the word “Link,” although this time with a twist.

After the link, it would speak a random string of words and characters in another language. It was not a language I recognized and could not understand. I double-checked my language settings in case something was amiss but found everything set to English as it should be. I tried filtering by heading or button again but got the exact “No Items Found” text.

At this point, I was frustrated and lost but figured I would perform one more text extraction. When I examined the meager text file that the application returned, I found many references to luggage prices, weight requirements, and other random words and numbers that seemed to have nothing to do with an airline ticket purchase.

One Last Try

Before completely giving up, I returned to the homepage and tried several of the other links that were either before or after the fourth one down. Each resulting page had the identical problem as the main page. My screen reader would only announce “Link,” sometimes followed by a random string of speech in another language. This was never going to work. Out of curiosity, I tried the site on other devices but had the same experience. It was, unfortunately, time to abandon my mission.

This airline’s website had a fundamental flaw that prevented it from working at all with screen readers. I’ll admit that I have never seen something quite like this before, perhaps the most inaccessible site I have ever tried to use.

Assistive technology dependents like myself will never be able to use the website in this condition. In the past, I have described websites as having “poor” or “bad” screen reader accessibility. With this site, it is safe to say that it has no screen reader accessibility. 

This was an extreme case. But if you find me sharing my experience valuable, check out UsableNet's e-book, Digital Commerce Without Barriers: Perspectives from the Disability Community, written in collaboration with other members of the disability community.

Editor's Note: This post was written by our frequent contributor, Michael Taylor. This post reflects his opinions and experiences. Read more about Michael and some other posts on his experience online here.

Michael Taylor

Michael Taylor

My name is Michael Taylor and I am a marketing intern at Usablenet. I graduated from Hofstra University with a bachelors of business administration in marketing. I am blind, and use assistive technology each and every day to access the digital world. As a result, I am very passionate about web accessibility and usability. My experiences with the good and bad of accessible technology give me a unique perspective that allows me to make meaningful contributions in the digital accessibility field. During my marketing internship at Usablenet, I hope to raise awareness about digital accessibility by providing accounts of my personal experiences and suggestions and recommendations about what works well and what does not. Though I am only beginning on my professional journey, I aim to pursue a long-term career in the digital accessibility field.

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