Air Canada enhances IFE options for visually impaired passengers

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Air Canada is further enhancing the entertainment options available for its visually impaired passengers, after becoming the first airline in the world to offer an IFE system with a ‘text-to-speech’ accessibility solution on its Boeing 787s.

The Panasonic Avionics eX3 system on Air Canada’s 787s is among the most advanced IFE platforms in the skies right now, and its graphical user interface (GUI) has been short-listed for an APEX award that recognizes specific achievement in the passenger experience. Visually impaired passengers on Air Canada’s 787s can navigate the IFE system in complete autonomy with the support of audio cues, touch screen inputs and/or handsets.

“We use a female voice in English and male voice in French. Voices are fed from the text-to-speech software that Air Canada licenses to operate its content management system,” Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick tells RGN. Global Eagle Entertainment’s DTI unit developed the software and content management solution.

Fitzpatrick says the offering “is technically performing very well”, but since Air Canada only has three 787s in operation right now – and these entered regular service in the past month or so – no passenger feedback has yet been collected formally.

Even so, the airline is pressing ahead with further accessibility options for passengers. Emirates recently began offering a service on its Disney movies whereby a recorded narration explains the scene during gaps in dialogue. Fitzpatrick says Air Canada is also moving in this direction, having recently licensed an accessible cooking show with Christine Ha (aka The Blind Chef) for visually impaired viewers including a descriptive video audio track.

Air Canada has also “started looking into this for its feature films”, he reveals.

Additionally, the airline is working to bring a solution to the Thales IFE on the rest of its fleet. At present, it is using tactile templates “allowing visually impaired passengers to navigate various radio channels in complete autonomy,” notes Fitzpatrick.

More broadly, the airline industry is keenly aware that it must put the wheels in motion to provide accessible IFE to the visually impaired and the deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) community. A US DOT supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (SNPRM) that would address accessible IFE for passengers with disabilities seeks to implement changes next year.

The Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) is uniquely positioned to assist the DOT in crafting a plan because its members comprise airlines, IFE content creators, IFE content service providers and IFE hardware manufacturers. “We are aware that the DOT is interested in increasing the accessibility of inflight media to both the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as the blind and visually impaired,” says APEX Technology Committee (TC) chairman Michael Childers.

Having established a Closed Caption Working Group last year, the TC has already engaged in exchanges with the DOT on possible paths forward for captioning IFE, a feature presently offered only on some IFE content.

On the audio front, content providers have typically delivered audio in IFE on composite DME – dialogue, music, effects, explains Childers. Audio Descriptions are timed to play in the natural pauses of dialogue or narration. Among the matters to be considered by the TC would be where in the media package the narration is added, the implications for remixing of the audio elements, and whether this might offer an opportunity for the delivery of component DME with potential for dynamic range compression.

Noting that the National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) has been the leader not only in CC but in descriptive video services for the blind, he says the the TC is eager to work together with NCAM to ensure these features “are supported by the best technology” for IFE.