Air Canada’s 787 to accommodate the blind


Air Canada today revealed it intends to become the first airline in the world to offer an inflight entertainment system with an accessible solution for visually impaired passengers on its Boeing 787s, in a standard-setting move that could compel other carriers throughout the world to follow suit.

The new IFE solution for visually impaired passengers is an innovation developed “in collaboration with Panasonic and DTI Solutions”, Air Canada tells Runway Girl Network.

Offered on Panasonic’s latest generation eX3 IFE system for Air Canada’s 787s, the solution “will provide a selection of audio & video titles (movies, TV shows, music albums, audiobooks, podcasts) accessible through a simplified user interface that visually impaired passengers can navigate in complete autonomy with the support of audio cues, touch screen inputs and/or handsets”, says the airline.

Air Canada has faced litigation because it does not currently offer an IFE solution for visually impaired passengers, but the carrier says a lawsuit did not compel it to act. The airline says a request for proposals (RFP) process to source the IFE system for the 787 had already been launched “when the claim was made” and Air Canada “had specifically requested the RFP applicants to provide an accessibility solution”. Panasonic’s proposal was ultimately selected.

Air Canada intends to collaborate with Thales in the development of a similar solution for the visually impaired next year on the Thales IFE systems installed on over 225 narrowbody and widebody aircraft in its fleet. “In the meantime (and for over three years now), Air Canada has offered tactile audio selection templates on all aircraft that visually impaired passengers can use to navigate various broadcast audio channels. The templates are installed on demand on seat-back monitors by the crew who also provide these passengers with a short briefing on how to use it (volume up/down, channel up/down),” notes the airline.

In addition to IFE access for the visually impaired, advocacy groups are calling for closed captioning (CC) of IFE content – and captioning of all aural announcements – to accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) community. In the United States, the Department of Transportation intends to open a notice of proposed rulemaking on the subject.

Air Canada says its new eX3 IFE system for the 787 will allow it to provide dynamic subtitles or CC “and will also allow the creation of a new AVOD (audio/video on demand) category, allowing a better classification of subtitled or captioned movies accessible to the hearing impaired”.

The airline’s current Thales IFE system provides for inclusion of pre-formatted content purchased from suppliers; it does not allow for the addition to an existing movie or TV show of CC or subtitles. However, Air Canada notes that over 25% of its movies today are subtitled and many new releases are subtitled in multiple languages. It also points out that all French and international movies are subtitled in English and Air Canada is currently looking at ways to source newly-released movies with subtitles in the same language as their original soundtrack.

It adds, “Last summer, Air Canada also licensed a few programs to its inflight programming line-up that were presented in International Sign language with English open captions. This initiative is to increase the accessibility and entertainment value of inflight entertainment systems for all travelers, including those who sign.”

Svetlana Kouznetsova, an accessibility specialist who is deaf, stresses there is a difference between subtitles and captions. “Subtitles are accessible for hearing foreign language speakers, but not necessarily deaf people. Air Canada says, for example, that French movies are subtitled in English – why are they not captioned in French first for those deaf people who speak French? Also, English subtitles are not fully accessible for deaf people if some dialogue in a French movie is in English and is not captioned. And subtitled foreign movies do not include sound descriptions that are very important for deaf viewers. Sign language is not used by the majority of deaf/HoH people whose primary communication is written and spoken languages. I won’t be able to understand International Sign language, for example.”

It goes without saying that the costs associated with overhauling IFE content and systems to accommodate deaf and HoH passengers are significant. One idea floated by a content service provider (CSP) during the recent APEX Technology Committee meeting in Burbank, California is for airlines with seat-back IFE to provide tablets with captioned content to deaf and HoH passengers. Kouznetsova, for one, doesn’t consider this to be a satisfactory solution. “I would prefer captioning on the embedded systems. I would not accept an iPad as a substitute for that as it would make me feel segregated – unless all passengers (deaf or hearing) also use iPads instead of the embedded systems. It’s also more convenient to watch on an embedded screen than to fumble with a tablet and try to figure out where to put it. There are more chances to break tablets, too – I wouldn’t want to be held liable for that (what if my seat mate breaks it by accident, not me?). Besides, hearing loss is very stigmatized and many deaf and especially HoH people do not feel comfortable identifying themselves if they are the only people using tablets.” Captioning content for embedded IFE benefits those with hearing loss and foreign language speakers, as well as those who find it easier to read captions than listen to audio, suggests Kouznetsova.


Air Canada’s decision to improve accessibility for both blind and deaf passengers is clearly a step in the right direction, however. Routehappy director of data John Walton says he is not surprised Air Canada “is on the forefront here” because of Canadian law, which, for example, already accommodates customers who require extra seating because of disability or obesity.  “Canadian carriers provide large passengers with an extra seat, free of charge with a doctor’s note,” Walton points out.

He is skeptical that other airlines will automatically follow Air Canada’s lead without being pressured to do so. “Whether it’s pressure from passengers or pressure from government or pressure from interest groups and lobby organizations – it [the industry] is a fairly mercenary business. We’ve seen any number of instances where airlines are failing to provide wheelchairs for mobility impaired. The notion that they’ll start to fix it is slightly optimistic.”

Airline and travel consultant Robert Mann notes that standardizing accessibility solutions for passengers with reduced mobility is a very difficult nut to crack. “When half the domestic departures are on regional aircraft, the ergonomics are different on regional aircraft, plus you end up with a training objective which not only includes your own people but the flight and ground staff – some of who are third party – plus two, three, four or five partner airlines.

“I’m not suggesting it shouldn’t be done. It should. But from a logistics, training and an ergonomics standpoint, it is really difficult.”

See Air Canada’s video about the 787 interior below.