Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

RNIB investigates Ryanair's online offering

Out-Law News | 17 Oct 2005 | 2:08 pm | 3 min. read

The RNIB says that Ryanair appears to be offering disabled passengers a lower standard of service when they book over its website. If proved, Ryanair's approach is likely to be discrimination under the UK's Disability Discrimination Act.

Advert: Phishing conference, London, 27th October 2005The charity is not suing the airline for having an inaccessible website – although another charity, AbilityNet, accused it of just that in 2003. Rather, the RNIB is investigating a complaint that blind passengers are not entitled to the same low fares as others when they book online.

RNIB spokesman Bill Alker told OUT-LAW that the complaint is from a blind man who tried to book online. The website's booking process states: "Passengers with special needs requirements must pre-book their requirement through Ryanair Direct on the same day as your original booking". It lists the telephone numbers of reservation centres and warns: "Failure to advise Ryanair of your requirements on the day of booking will result in the service being unavailable on your arrival to the airport and you being refused carriage."

Alker explained that it received a complaint from a man who called the number to make a booking, only to learn that he would not qualify for the discounts or special offers available online.

This is likely to amount to discrimination, he says, because Ryanair's online booking system may be subject to the Disability Discrimination Act.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC), the independent statutory body which exists to monitor the effectiveness of disability legislation, has indicated that such systems are caught by the Act. In a Code of Practice that it published in 2002 it gave an airline's online booking system as an example of a service that would be subject to the Act.

The legislation itself states: "It is unlawful for a provider of services to discriminate against a disabled person […] in the standard of service which he provides to the disabled person or the manner in which he provides it to him; or […] in the terms on which he provides a service to the disabled person."

Ryanair has shown a willingness to defend claims of disability discrimination before: it fought an action over the hire charge for a wheelchair in 2004; but this case, if it proceeds, would be the first of its kind.

The accessibility of Ryanair's site is a different issue and one that has not involved the RNIB.

In July 2003, AbilityNet, the national computing and disability charity, studied several airline websites and rated Ryanair's as one of the worst for accessibility. There is little sign of improvement. Today, most users will be unable to enlarge the text on the site; anyone whose browser does not support JavaScript will struggle to make a booking; and ALT text for graphic adverts promoting car hire and hotel booking services simply states "Click here to find out more!" which will be meaningless to anyone using a screen reader.

When Alker was asked if the RNIB had received any complaints about Ryanair's web accessibility, he replied, "Not to my knowledge, no." But he pointed out that the charity has had seven other complaints from blind and partially sighted people about Ryanair since 2003, such as one from a visually impaired couple who said that, despite being partners, Ryanair refused to allow them to sit next to each other. The RNIB has received no complaints about any other airline.

The charity is powerless to pursue these seven other complaints because air travel is exempt from the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act. The RNIB is campaigning for change, together with the DRC.

The DRC has long argued for the same legal protection for disabled people whatever mode of transport they use. But for now, the RNIB feels powerless to pursue the complaints.

The airline applies a limit of taking only four disabled passengers on any flight. Last week, it was reported that nine blind and partially sighted passengers were "marched" off a Ryanair plane just minutes before take-off. The party was travelling to Italy for a walking holiday. The pilot told them of Ryanair's quota and that there were already four disabled passengers on board. So the party of nine had to return to Stansted Airport to await another flight. They were not given any money for food or accommodation and some of them reportedly slept on the floor overnight.

Ryanair said in a statement: "It would have been unsafe to allow a total of 12 disabled / reduced mobility passengers to travel on board the flight as we would have been unable to attend to them in the case of an emergency evacuation."

It said that its quota was agreed with the DRC for safety reasons. But the DRC was quick to deny this, saying it "has not been involved in any shape or form with providing guidance to Ryanair on limits to the numbers of disabled passengers able to board flights."