Closed Captioning sign in black against a white background. accessible IFE

Op-Ed: CC complaints from industry will fall on deaf ears

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RGN OP-ED Banner with blue back ground and black wingtipCertain airlines and inflight entertainment stakeholders are doubtlessly breathing a sigh of relief now that it has become apparent that the US Department of Transportation isn’t exactly sprinting to bring closed captioning (CC) to IFE without doing some very methodical research. Even so, the industry would be wise to get its house in order tout suite.

The DOT supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM) that addresses accessible IFE is broad in nature; for instance, it covers carrier-supplied medical oxygen, service animals, and accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft, in addition to seeking to ascertain whether providing accessible IFE to passengers with disabilities is technically and economically feasible. These issues were flagged as important in the preamble of the 2008 final Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) rule.

The DOT had intended to have a rulemaking in place before the end of 2011, but it is now eyeing a projected date of 25 August 2014 for the “end of comment period” for the SNPRM. Explaining the delay, the DOT cites the need for additional coordination for regulatory evaluation and the necessity for “additional research and data analysis”. This need for more analysis has resulted in some exchanges between the DOT and a dedicated CC working group within the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX)’s Technology Committee.

In its January report detailing ‘DOT Significant Rulemakings’, the department provided the following schedule for its SNPRM:




To OST (Office of the Secretary of Transportation) 06/27/2011 02/03/2014
To OMB (Office of Management and Budget) 07/30/2011 03/17/2014
OMB Clearance 10/25/2011 06/16/2014
Publication Date 10/31/2011 06/26/2014
End of Comment Period 12/31/2011 08/25/2014

The DOT is not expected to make any rulemaking announcements in February (though one should “never say never”, as they say). But it knows it can’t sit on its hands, in part because it is under legislative pressure.

Last year, US Senator Tom Harkin introduced legislation to expand access to captioning and image narration in movie theaters and airplanes. Specifically, Harkins’ bill would require airlines flying in and out of the US to provide closed captioning (CC), and, substantially, any connecting flights operated by US carriers’ codeshare partners outside of the country.


Many people in the industry acknowledge that bringing CC to IFE is not a matter of “if” but “when”. Indeed, it is expected to become ubiquitous in the next few years, and the industry will have to find a way of dealing with it (from a cost standpoint, a content standpoint and a technical standpoint).

Even so, behind the scenes, certain airlines and content service providers have expressed concerns. Some argue that they already provide a good mix of content with many languages and CC or subtitles wherever possible in order to accommodate as many “permutations” as possible (not my word). But as mentioned before, these arguments will fall on deaf ears.

Here are just some of their questions and concerns. Some are valid; others less so, in my opinion. But they speak to what’s going on.

1) While most US-sourced content comes with CC, local movie and TV content in other countries usually does not come with CC. Is it a must that airlines have CC if they fly to the US?

2) In principle, an aircraft is deemed to be the space of the country where it is registered – can the DOT rule on any foreign aircraft? If airlines are not compliant, what is going to happen? The very big issue that is being missed here is that most airlines take content that is not produced in the US and is not subject to US law. This would effectively remove the possibility for airlines outside the US to use any local content, which is not created with closed captions – or if it does, they are not necessarily going to be in English, which is no doubt the expectation of the DOT.

3) The question all airlines will – or should ask – is what languages will captions be expected to be in, if they are flying to the US. Will there be an expectation that for example an Arabic original language program will have to have captions created in both Arabic and English before it can be shown on a flight going into the US?

4) Is it a must have for all content or is there a certain number which we have to guarantee? Generally a person cannot watch the entire content an IFE offers and not all content is offered in all languages, so how can DOT request CC for everything – even the ones who can hear don’t get everything in their language.

5) What happens if a movie title doesn’t have it? Do the airlines have to switch off the IFE when entering US airspace?

6) What happens with old systems, which cannot accommodate CC? Are they exempted and for how long?

7) If the DOT requests CC for everything (even old systems) and CC cannot be done as a dynamic file – passengers who are not hard of hearing will be annoyed with the constant appearing text i.e. on a 9 inch screen. How does DOT manage that? The airline could get claims by the normal passengers that they can hardly see the movie.

8) This is a very serious issue for the airlines and the entire industry. Many (or probably most) airlines are still flying older systems that are not capable at all to display CC. Don’t think that the hardware vendors are going to re-engineer older systems to be able to accommodate.

Meanwhile, even though the DOT is moving slowly, it is moving surely. In 2006, the DOT reluctantly shelved a proposal to caption IFE after APEX – then known as WAEA – advised the department that IFE systems did not support Line 21, a closed caption standard for National Television System Committee (NTSC) TV broadcasts.

At that time, the DOT held the misconception that you could simply flip a switch for Line 21 on IFE systems. WAEA cited the industry’s migration to MPEG-4 and offered a timeline by which the industry could realistically comply with the DOT’s wishes.

With airlines generating massive quarterly profits, and technology on the ground advancing at break-neck speed, it’s fair to say that the DOT, lawmakers and the traveling public will not accept excuses for long as to why a large amount of IFE content is not captioned. 

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