Captioning In-Flight Entertainment: The Final Frontier

Posted by: Staff Writer on June 4, 2013

Scientific progress doesn't always happen in logical order. In 1921, Aeromarine Airways showed the world's first in-flight movie. In 1969, we put a man on the moon. In 2005, tourists started booking with Virgin Galactic to take spaceflights. In 2009, U.S. Department of Transport ruled that all aircraft videos, DVDs and other audio-visual displays be captioned for safety and/or informational purposes. 

Then ... finally, in 2012, Continental Airlines became the first airline to provide passengers with closed captioning for live television on some of its aircraft (newsflash: in late 2010, Continental merged with United Airlines).

That's right: Space tourism preceded in-flight captioning by a whopping seven years. We already put a man on the moon, so why can't we put captions on all programmes, all commercial aircrafts, via all airlines?

It has more to do with politics, than the limits of science. Since 1993, built-in captioning decoder boxes have been a fixture in many homes. But airlines are still catching up on the captioning game.

For Deafies, it hurts in multiple ways. We are no strangers to airports (see The Wander-List: Why Deaf People Love to Travel), for one. We pay the same price for tickets as hearing passengers, for another "It is not right that we have to pay a full fare and not receive the same service as hearing passengers," said Kenneth DeHaan, founder of the Facebook Cause Require Subtitles on All Airline Carriers.

That's why deafREVIEW's intrepid researcher spent a couple days calling various airlines and filling in an Excel spreadsheet, to find the straight scoop: Which ones offer captioned in-flight entertainment ... and which types of entertainment: TV, movies, or both? Domestic or international flights, or both?

We picked our Facebook fans' brains, asked our frequent-flier friends, and started a discussion thread with LinkedIn's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Professional Groups. Our discovery: There's sometimes a discrepancy between what airlines tell us, and what deaf/hh travelers actually experience:

ALASKA AIRLINES

While a representative told us there are captions, reports are conflicting. Personal experience and reports from deaf consumers tell us that only a few movies are captioned (two out of six offered)... and none of the television programs were. To view the programming that is captioned, there is a $10-12 rental fee for a handheld hard-disk digital device called digEplayer.

AMERICAN AIRLINES

This airline's representative confirmed that there are no captions available on their in-flight entertainment. While this is the first domestic airline to offer complimentary use of the Samsung Galaxy Tab™ 10.1 Android platform tablet for business and first class passengers, AA can step up its game by also offering complimentary captioning for entertainment.

DELTA

Delta's rep confirmed that captioning is available, but only for ON DEMAND movies. This may be a recent development, however.

JETBLUE

JetBlue's rep confirmed that there is no in-flight entertainment captioning available. That means deaf/hh passengers miss out on accessible content for all of the 36 DIRECTV channels and 100 channels of SiriusXM Radio®, as well as new release films with JetBlue Features, and Plus-TV.

Quite disappointing for an airline that is considered one of the top five airlines for in-flight entertainment. Sure, JetBlue's got a dedicated screen in every seat, and first-run movies for $5.99 per film on domestic flights (or free on international flights). It's also working on adding free on-board Wi-Fi, which we're very excited about. But to secure our vote as a truly deaf-friendly airline, JetBlue's got to add captioning to its bevy of in-flight entertainment offerings.

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

Popular as Southwest is for its pick-your-seat policy, pre-boarding options for deaf/hh passengers and relative absence of baggage fees, it's not the perfect airline ... yet. Herein lies the rub: Southwest's representative, Steve, told us that the airline does not offer captioning on its in-flight entertainment. No devices are provided, nor are there outlet plugs for personal devices. There also are no in-built screen monitors for in-flight entertainment.

UNITED

United's representative, Johanna, said that this airline has closed-captioning on individual monitors on chair via DIRECT TV on all TV channels. Our frequent-flier deafREVIEW staffer can confirm this.

Interestingly, the 23rd annual national Airline Quality Rating (AQR) ranked United Airlines as the worst-performing airline out of the 14 leading carriers of 2012. These rankings are based on variables like on-time performance, baggage handling, involuntary denied boarding’s, and customer complaints.

PRO TIP: On the DirecTV menu, press SELECT on a Channel Category to see the Guide and then choose Audio & Language Options. You will then be able to select “Captioning.” Voila!

VIRGIN AMERICA

There are conflicting reports about Richard Branson's hip, trendy airline. Virgin's representative, Joe, said there is in-flight entertainment captioning and that the steward/ess can help turn it on. But our deaf source reported to us that s/he wasn't able to get CC. Perhaps only certain aircrafts have captioning, or only certain flights, or perhaps not all flight attendants are trained about how to activate the CC upon request.

Whatever the reason, we find it ironic that unlike United Airlines which provides captioning, Virgin America was rated the #1 U.S. Airline in April 2013. “My rating lowers (Virgin America) because of no closed captions,” a technical consultant said on LinkedIn.

Also, Virgin was voted the best in in-flight entertainment: An easy-to-navigate touch-screen system, Wi-Fi, a seat-to-seat chat system that allows you to message friends and family in other parts of the plane. It also has plugs in every seat, so passengers can keep their devices charged.  

Now, if only Virgin could beef up its caption accessibility … then we'll believe its in-flight entertainment system is the top dog of all airlines. Until then, we're not that impressed by bells and whistles catered to the majority.

BOTTOM LINE

Captioned in-flight entertainment is still such a new concept that even airline reps are apt to fumble for the right answer. Not only that, but deaf-friendly customer service is still lagging in this progressive era.

Another LinkedIn professional described the battles we face when we fly: “There seems to be less understanding about deaf/hoh travelers than those with other disabilities. Every time you inform crew members that you are deaf, many of them either hand you a wheelchair or a Braille print without understanding that you need visual access to aural information.”

We're frustrated, but the numbers don't show it: In 2006, airlines received about 14,000 disability-related complaints, but only about 200 of these complaints were filed by deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind individuals.

Crazy math: Our community fields only 1.4% of the disability complaints. Shocking, for a community that travels so often and is easily misunderstood.

"It has become clear that deaf and hard of hearing passengers need to communicate their concerns more often," the Air Travel page on NAD website urges


Perhaps we're grateful for pre-boarding, or captioned safety videos, or simply unaware of the most effective way to file complaints. Ranting to 632 Facebook friends about missing "Fast and Furious" during your 13-hour flight to Spain can spark a dialogue, but to make a real difference, write a formal complaint to the powers that be:

Here's a list of the 48 U.S. carriers who participate in the disability hotline. Let's keep them honest.

And for international travelers braving +14 hour flights? You have twice, if not thrice, the incentive to file a complaint channels/films lack English subtitles. NOTE: Don't assume that foreign films are English-subtitled the way they are on Netflix or a Blu-Ray DVD. Flying Eva Airways means staring at a Wong Kar-Wai movie with ... Cantonese subtitles.

From Aer Lingus to Virgin Atlantic, here's the list of the 57 foreign carriers who participate in the disability hotline.

Lastly, let's follow a politician who's literally trying to get captions off the ground (and into the air): Sen. Harkin of Iowa. One of his two captioning access bills is S. 556, which aims to amend the Air Carrier Access Act to require that in-flight entertainment be captioned. Harkin's late brother was deaf, so this is a cause near and dear to his heart.

Science has already shown us: It's not Star Trek rocket science to put Wi-Fi and captions 30,000 feet in the clouds. It's a matter of appealing to the political and money-oriented decision-makers that we, the Community, are worth that effort.

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