First class onboard United Airlines' Boeing 737 MAX

How United’s accessible in-seat IFE lives up to expectations

Cartoon of passengers, flight attendant and pilots onboard an aircraftEver since I penned a piece about United Airlines’ new inflight entertainment system and its suite of accessibility features including for the blind, I have been eager to catch a flight on one of the carrier’s equipped aircraft to try it for myself. This summer, the US major began operating some frequencies between Phoenix and Houston using the Boeing 737 MAX 8, which was delivered factory-fit with the IFE system under the airline’s United Next initiative. So, I jumped at the chance to fly on the MAX 8 when it was time to plan a weeklong trip to visit family near Houston.

United’s accessible iPhone app makes it easy to view the cost of an upgrade to first class. Using the app, I wound up purchasing upgrades in both directions, and was happy to see that United had fixed the accessibility issue in the app that prevented me, a blind passenger, from executing on an upgrade when I flew on United last year.

On the morning of my MAX 8 flight to Houston, I opted to take Lyft to the airport and use AIRA, which connects blind people with trained agents who provide visual interpretation services free of charge to the user. Phoenix International recently joined the list of airports offering AIRA.

After getting my bearings on the curb, I connected with an AIRA agent that directed me to the premier Access check-in counter to check my bag. From there, I opted to use the more traditional ‘meet and assist’ service at PHX to get to my gate, where United’s MAX 8, in the SAF livery with a special green wave, was waiting.

I took advantage of preboarding and, once on the plane, the flight attendant working the first class cabin showed me to my window seat in the second row of the cabin. He assisted me in stowing my backpack and laptop bag, but he never offered me the individualized safety briefing that blind passengers are supposed to receive — getting one of those is hit or miss in my experience.

The first class seats on United’s MAX 8 are identical to the MAX 9 I flew last year, with the addition of a headphone jack and IFE remote in the console between the two seats. I plugged in my earbuds, enabled the text-to-speech functionality by tapping the IFE screen with two fingers three times, and began exploring the system. The gestures used to interact with the system are like those used for smartphone and tablet touchscreens and I found the system easy to navigate after a brief familiarization period with how the menus are set up.

The text-to-speech functionality is just one of the many impressive new features on United’s Crystal Cabin Award-winning IFE system, as demonstrated and explained here by industry consultant Corinne Streichert for the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). Streichert previously worked at United, managing its accessible IFE program.

Newer movies almost always offer audio description upon release and some studios have begun projects to add audio description to many of their more popular older titles. Here is how it works:

One of the neatest features of any IFE system is the moving map. While the visual map itself is not useful to me personally, I was able to access information such as altitude, airspeed, outside temperature, and time remaining via United’s IFE system, without interrupting the movie I was watching.

When I landed in Houston, ‘meet and assist’ was waiting for me at the gate. I had them bring me down to baggage claim where my family was meeting me. I had no trouble locating my bag on the carousel thanks to the beeping functionality offered by the Air Tag on my luggage.

One week later, I planned to use AIRA again for my return flight to Phoenix, but after waiting for several minutes I was never connected to an agent. This is something that should never happen and makes me hesitant to become a paid subscriber. A United crew member saw me, asked if I needed help, and got me over to customer service to check my bag and make ‘meet and assist’ arrangements.

My flight home was also on a MAX 8. When boarding, I took the same seat I had on my previous flight. Like my departing flight, I received no personalized safety briefing from the cabin crew.

I used the IFE system to start playing The Big Lebowski. United’s system did not have audio description for the movie, but that was not a huge surprise since audio described versions of older movies can be difficult to find.

When I landed in Phoenix, it took a little while for ‘meet and assist’ to meet me at the gate. Once they arrived, they brought me down to baggage claim where my wife met me.

After waiting for three-and-a-half years to finally get a chance to try out United’s accessible IFE system, I can say that it lived up to all my expectations. The only drawback I found  was that I could not locate a list of audio described titles in the menu, but it is possible that I may have just missed it.

Having the freedom to not have to think about my own entertainment ahead of time for a trip was refreshing.

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Featured image of the Boeing 737 MAX first class cabin credited to United Airlines. First embedded video credited to APEX. Second embedded video credited to RNIB.