For the last several years, Simply Accessible has been honoured to help several airlines develop their accessibility programs in response to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling to include airline digital content in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The Phase 1 deadline has passed and we’re proud of how far our clients have come.

First, a bit of context. When the DOT amended their ruling in the ACAA, we were contacted by a number of airlines looking to improve the accessibility of their websites. The ACAA requires airline companies to make their web site content accessible. The DOT split the work into two phases, with the first phase to be completed by mid-December of last year—a deadline extended to June 30, 2016 after IATA (the International Air Transport Association) requested more time to allow air carriers to comply.

For Phase 1, airlines needed to make sure the web pages associated with seven core travel functions (like booking a reservation or checking in for a flight) conformed to WCAG 2.0 Level AA. But beyond that—and most exciting for accessibility advocates like us—the ACAA requirements didn’t stop at technical compliance. Air carriers also had to do usability testing with people who experience visual, auditory, tactile, and cognitive disabilities to ensure their sites were truly accessible.

It has been an honour, a privilege, and one hell of a journey working beside our airline partners to reach the June 30th deadline. This milestone marks the beginning of a new standard and quality of online user experience for airline passengers. Our clients have made great strides towards creating more accessible web sites, and our team has been with them every step of the way: working long and unusual hours, staying patient and persistent, and continually insisting that people remain at the forefront of what we’re doing on the web.

So today, a week after the deadlines, we’re pausing to reflect on the biggest challenges airlines faced leading up to this first ACAA deadline, and what impressed us most about the work our clients did.

Complex sites, legacy code, and huge codebases

I honestly think the biggest challenges the airlines faced was the sheer complexity of their sites. They have to reliably process millions of tickets with dynamic information, flight times, prices, etc. It wasn’t that our clients had so many issues as much as it was that they had so many pages (and states of pages, and sub-states of pages, and sub-sub-, well, you get the picture) to work on!

What impressed me most was that they managed to make so many fixes in this extremely dynamic environment. It’s not a situation in which they can simply fix a minor problem; it’s got to work across any of a hundred things that can happen to the same page depending on a lot of factors. What also impressed me was the absolute depth of knowledge of the teams. Their developers could rattle off subsections of their site as if they’d been looking at it an hour before. Additionally, their Product Owners also displayed an awesome and intricate understanding of the complicated nuances within their system. —Charles

Airlines typically have multiple vendors that manage different parts of the user’s experience. Content that “looks” the same in booking and check-in, for example, might be owned by two different vendors. Airline clients had to not only integrate accessibility improvements into their own content, but had to work with vendors to have similar changes implemented.

Our clients made huge systemic changes across their entire site, often across thousands of pages, improving the experience for millions of people. I think looking into their own processes and evaluating what’s most valuable to their customers helped their efforts toward accessibility but also helped them to better understand their audience and their needs. —Devon

I think the sheer volume of the task at hand was our clients’ biggest challenge, especially when accessibility is something most teams were new to. Airline websites aren’t small and almost every page had to be organized and managed while it went through the entire process. There was a lot of difficult coordination required to get all the pieces in place. They’ve clearly tried to take our recommendations and advice on when moving forward with new design and development. It’s not always perfect, but building for accessibility has become part of their thinking which is half the battle. —Stuart

I supported an airline vendor team with clinic calls who had to overcome legacy markup integrated with an existing system. With legacy code, changes that would be simple to do in a recent build were more complicated to achieve. They had to think hard about the goal of each accessibility criteria in order to find solutions that fulfilled their users’ needs. This was a big job, and I was really impressed by their steady pace. If they’d thrown themselves into the deep end, they’d have burned out long before the deadline. But, they came up with a sustainable schedule and worked hard to keep up with it. I think they all deserve a long holiday. —Julie

Building a process and a practice

I think the biggest challenge that our clients faced was the learning curve of how to implement accessibility best practices. Many clients had a variety of applications with quite a span of legacy code bases that needed to be fixed up—each posing its own challenges to make usable for for all kinds of folks.

I was really impressed by how so many people embraced the work and took it as an opportunity to learn. I think the greatest moments in our ACAA projects were getting to watch as things started to make sense for our clients—the moment they got it! —Gavin

The biggest challenge that I saw our airline clients wrestle with over the last year was one of scaling and maturing their web production lifecycle. Integrating accessibility into all of these existing workflows often revealed gaps and outdated processes. Transformation naturally happens at different speeds within various teams. But, in 2015, accessibility acted as a roll call for all airline teams, requiring everyone to embrace a huge paradigm shift together.

I was incredibly impressed by the level of commitment that airlines had to involving people with disabilities into the work they do. Airlines who already had usability testing integrated into their process had to expand the way they conducted studies, and they were eager to learn how to make this critical practice sustainable and agile to match the cadence of their development teams. And, those who had never really done much usability testing before immediately understood the relevance and significance of real user feedback. —Elle

By far, the biggest challenges our airlines faced leading up to this ACAA deadline were twofold: managing the complexities of the third-party vendor systems that are required to integrate into their web sites, and having to learn rapidly, studying and fixing one part of their site and applying those insights and skills to other parts.

What impressed me most was how teams stuck in and did the work. In order to do that, they were in a near constant state of prioritization—understanding impact of barriers on people with disabilities as they related to the deadlines that the ACAA set forth. Understanding that the core travel functions come first—not because of something arbitrary, but because pages and functionality related to the seven core travel functions include the user tasks that are of the most value to passengers. Building that skill of prioritization was key, and each one of our clients took that skill on across the board from executive leadership to writers, designers, developers, and QA testers. —Derek

Accessibility as usability

Our clients were faced with a huge task: to understand that some of the common development practices they’d used throughout the site can create accessibility barriers for users. Widely-used components such as custom form elements, datepickers and seat-selection interfaces had to be revisited to ensure they worked for all users. In embracing this challenge, airline teams came to understand how it’s necessary to put yourself in the position of different kinds of users, and to gain an empathy for the way they interact with these components and the challenges they face. —James

One of the best aspects—from my perspective as our manager of accessibility and usability testing—was the integration of usability into the ACAA requirements. We didn’t just have to say these airlines’ sites were accessible, we had to prove that they were accessible.

After we completed some of the usability testing, our clients dug in and watched every minute of the recordings. For each client, this is more than thirty hours of video. Our clients got to observe people from varied backgrounds trying to complete tasks, including participants’ valuable play-by-play narration and feedback. It was the first time some of our clients got to see assistive technology like screen readers and voice recognition software in action. They’re carrying what they’ve learned into everything they’re designing and developing from now on. —Joanna

The journey isn’t over for our airline partners, but we’re proud of how far they’ve come and how they’re looking ahead to the next phase of the process. Our fearless leader has written that accessibility is a journey and a destination, so bravo to our airline partners! And we’ll stop just shy of making a ‘cleared for take-off’ joke.