Closed captioning for IFE is coming, though not soon enough

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Deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) passengers have been calling on airlines to offer closed captioning (CC) of IFE for years. But even though US Senator Tom Harkin last year introduced legislation to expand access to captioning and image narration in movie theaters and airplanes, the wheels of change grind slowly in aviation.

For instance, a long-standing DOT supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM) that would address accessible IFE for passengers with disabilities – in addition to carrier-supplied medical oxygen, service animals, and accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft – has missed every single deadline ever set for it.

The DOT had intended to have a rulemaking in place before the end of 2011, but it is now eyeing a projected date of 29 April 2015 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, which is uniquely positioned to assist regulators because its members comprise airlines, IFE content creators, IFE content service providers and IFE hardware manufacturers.

The Technology Committee will update APEX members about its work with the DOT next week during a conference in Universal City, California. But it’s already clear stakeholders want to convince regulators to accept an arrangement that would see less than 100% of content captioned. For instance, 90% of all new Hollywood movies have CC, but older movies are not CC’d so they may propose that 50% of these movies be captioned.

Arguing that they already provide a good mix of content with many languages and CC or subtitles wherever possible, some airlines have expressed concerns about the cost and logistics of ensuring that 100% of all IFE content is captioned. While most US-sourced content comes with CC, local movie and TV content in other countries usually does not come with CC. Airlines want to know if they must offer CC on all content if they fly to the US. Also, they’re curious if there will 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. The age and capabilities of IFE systems are obviously factors in determining if captioned content is available.

When I recently traveled on Qatar Airways to Doha, I was pleasantly surprised to see many titles with CC and/or subtitles, though this is certainly not the case with all airlines. A member of the FaceBook group called ‘Require Subtitles on All Airline Carriers’, reports, “I went to Hong Kong for China [on] business last week by British Airways; it’s crap [and had] only two open subtitles films out [of] hundreds of films in the entertainment system but on the way back to UK…[and a] transfer to Cathay Pacific to London, and their entertainment system [is] brilliant because every film [has] an English/German/French subtitles option.”

In a statement describing next week’s Technology Committee session on CC for IFE, APEX says, “Clearly, new closed captioning and similar rules have the potential to seriously impact many segments of our industry and present challenges from economic, practical and technical standpoints.”

That may be so, but change is still afoot. Even though the DOT is moving slowly, it is moving surely. In 2006, the department 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.

Now, in addition to new regulations requiring CC for inflight video in US airspace, other regulations “intending to assist the visually impaired may also be in the offing from the DOT”, notes APEX.

With airlines generating massive quarterly profits, and technology on the ground advancing at break-neck speed, I think 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.

Highlighting an unfortunate truth, Deaf Review last year noted, “We already put a man on the moon, so why can’t we put captions on all programs, all commercial aircrafts, via all airlines?”

1 Comment

  1. Is there anything that the Deaf community can do to encourage IFCC to speed up to add English subtitles in American/Canadian airlines?