Keep the Focus Outline

Animated GIF screen capture of Virgin America site.
This animated GIF is a screen capture of cycling through every interactive element (mostly links) on the page using just the tab key. You’ll note that in all but one case, the only indication of any change is in the lower left in the browser’s status bar where it shows the URL of the destination link. The URLs ending in a “#” are the booking options.

Today’s rant is inspired by all the gushing over Virgin America’s new web site — just because it’s responsive.

To be fair to Virgin America, making its site responsive is a huge win for users whose primary method of booking is via a smartphone or tablet (or, god forbid, phablet or tablone). Its new site, however, is a huge step backward for users who rely on the keyboard as their primary method of interaction.

Virgin America’s CSS has a style to identify anchors with focus (yes, there are other elements that should get focus, but I am looking at just the most basic support): a:focus {outline: thin dotted;}

What’s so frustrating is that the useful style is then overridden with this harmful declaration: a:focus {outline: none;} This override greatly decreases the usability and accessibility of the site. Unfortunately, this practice is still common on many more sites across the web.

As a web developer, one of the simplest accessibility tests you can do is unplug your mouse. Two quick things to review as part of that: Can you interact with all controls with only the keyboard? Can you tell which item has focus?

Even if you aren’t motivated to run that simple test from an overriding sense of being nice to your users, there’s a legal concern here. As I wrote last week, the U.S. Department of Justice held H&R block accountable to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level A and AA Success Criteria. That means there is case law for making your consumer-facing site comply or face penalties.

By excluding focus styles, Virgin America is running afoul of one of the AA Requirement 2.4.7:

2.4.7 Focus Visible: Any keyboard operable user interface has a mode of operation where the keyboard focus indicator is visible. (Level AA)

In short, if your site doesn’t make interaction elements obvious when accessed via keyboard, not only are you hurting users, you’re opening yourself up to litigation.

Further Reading

Again, this isn’t a new issue. It even has its own mini-site at, which offers these handy links:

To add another, this article, When Do Elements Take the Focus?, might be handy to understand just when you can expect to see :focus styles get applied by a browser.


In March I wrote about how Google removed underlines from search result links. My concern there was that web developers might follow suit. Between removing keyboard focus indicators and underlines from links, I am amazed that developers do so much to make the core interaction element of the web essentially hidden to so many users. I am reproducing the list of related links here as they are relevant to the overall issue of keeping links usable:

My Efforts to Reach Virgin America (so far)

I may have contacted Virgin America on Twitter once. Or Twice. Or three times. Perhaps even a fourth time. And filed a bug with And left a comment at Wired’s article. I’ve embedded the tweets below so you an retweet if you are as whiny as I.

Update: June 27, 2014

On December 12, 2013 a rule became effective from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) titled Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel: Accessibility of Web Sites and Automated Kiosks at U.S. Airports. That links points to the following section on accessibility:

Finally, we proposed a tiered implementation approach in which the WCAG 2.0 standard at Level A and AA would apply to (1) a new or completely redesigned primary Web site brought online 180 or more days after the effective date of the final rule; […]

As keyboard accessibility is one of the requirements of WCAG AA compliance, Virgin America’s new site does not honor this rule. However, if the Virgin site officially launched before June 10, 2014, then it squeaks by on a date technicality.

More information on the implications of the law are in the post New accessibility rules coming to airline websites. Are you ready?

Update: July 21

It took just over a month, but Virgin America responded to me:

I don’t see any reason to follow and/or direct message to share more information. I have this blog post, which I’ve linked repeatedly. I think that’s plenty. I responded and asked if or when the issue would be fixed, but I’ve been met with silence. Perhaps in another month I’ll hear more.

In the meantime, given the amount of action the below tweet of mine has gotten, I know I am not alone in thinking that disabling the focus outline is generally a bad idea:

Update: October 15, 2014 — Screen Reader Walk-Through

Marcy Sutton, at the JSConf, provided a walk-through of the Virgin America web site experience using a screen reader. It does a great job of showing what a terrible experience this site has created. I’ve embedded it below, bracketed to the relevant part of her talk, or you can view it directly on YouTube (starting at 0:20).

Update: October 23, 2014

Here is a video of the screen reader walk-through, pulled from the latest version of Marcy Sutton’s slides on Angular Accessibility:

Update: November 8, 2015

Virgin America once again motivated me to write a new post owing to a recent change on its site: Be Wary of Add-on Accessibility

Update: November 10, 2015

Jennison Asuncion points out that airline web sites must be accessible by December 12, 2015 — or just about a month from now. SSB Bart Group outlines the core features of a site that must be accessible next month (such as booking a flight or checking in), and outlines what can wait until December of 2016 (just some leftover marketing pages at that point).

It’s possible Virgin America paid for the third-party solution in an effort to make the deadline. Sadly, if nothing improves between now and next month, Virgin America will not be compliant and may have to throw more money at an already sub-par solution.

Update: Also November 10, 2015

Today Smashing Magazine has kicked off a UX review series starting with the airline industry. Virgin America’s site ranked well, but no consideration of accessibility was mentioned anywhere. So I got ranty in the comments.

Update: April 4, 2016

Virgin America is getting bought. Hope they don’t average the accessibility efforts between Alaska Air and Virgin America.

One Comment


[…] accessibility nightmare. On the simplest level, it is completely unusable with a keyboard ( On a more complex level, it fails to work with screen readers at all […]

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