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United Fights Call to Let Blind Use Check-In Kiosks

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Advocates for the blind sparred with United Airlines in the 9th Circuit about what the airline could do to accommodate passengers unable to use check-in kiosks.

Joined by three individuals - Michael May, Michael Hingson and Christina Thomas - the National Federation of the Blind filed suit in October 2010 over United ticketing kiosks that lack audio output or other blind-friendly alternatives.

Rather, the machines operate exclusively by video and touch-screen navigation.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed the action, finding the claims pre-empted by both the Airline Deregulation Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.

Federal regulations require that blind passengers either be assisted by airport personnel at the kiosks or be directed to the front of the line at the ticket counter.

But the federation insisted at a hearing before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit that United could modify its kiosks in the same way that there are now blind-accessible ATMs.

"United Airlines has and continues to discriminate against blind passengers," said the federation's attorney, Greg Care, of Brown Goldstein Levy.

California's Unruh Civil Rights Act mandates "full and equal" accommodations, not the "equivalent service" of federal regulations, he said.

Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said divergent state and federal regulations put airlines in a tricky position, as blind-accessible kiosks could be seen as not necessarily better than in-person help.

"It's kind of scary if you're at the wrong end of the regulation, and you do something different from what the regulation says," Kleinfeld said. "The feds have a theory of what makes it accessible to blind people: letting them come to the front of the line at the check in counter."

Modified kiosks could also possibly result in a class action if blind passengers find them insufficient, he noted.

John Nuechterlein, the Wilmer Hale attorney representing United Airlines, told the court that the federal laws were enacted for "consistency and predictability."

Disabled passengers should not have to anticipate varying types of accommodation at different airports, he said.

If United applied the California law, what could stop all the states from forming their own ideas about disabled access, he asked.

"Fifty different state legislatures could impose 50 different schemes involving different specifications," Nuechterlein said. "The reason Congress passed this act is to ensure consistency and predictability for people as they travel around the country."

United could shell out for expensive modifications to its kiosks, only to find in the coming months or years that amended federal regulations will require something different, the attorney added.

"The airlines are waiting for there to be a consistent national standard for kiosks before spending millions of dollars," Nuechterlein said. "In all these decisions, the agencies make extremely rigorous cost benefit analyses for technology they are going to impose on the airlines. The last thing the airlines want to do is invest millions of dollars in kiosks before finding out what the federal standard is."

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