Accessibility in In-Flight Entertainment Systems

Are airlines doing enough to make life easier for disabled passengers during travel? That is a much wider question encompassing need of accessibility solutions at various stages of journey. It includes reserved parking spots at airports, ramps to enter terminal buildings, wheelchair access and so on. There are regulations governing many of these aspects and hence some level of uniformity has been implemented at airports all across the world. But what about accessibility during the flight? Let us take the specific example of In-Flight entertainment systems – the virtual life savers for cattle class passengers stuck in their narrow seats. How many airlines can claim to have accessibility features in their entertainment systems? How many unique, trendsetting features were implemented in the airline industry for disabled passengers?

Not many.Even after so many years of advancements in the In-flight entertainment industry.

The IFE systems need to be made accessibility for two broad types of disabilities, visually impaired and hearing impaired. The disabilities under visually impaired get categorized further into partially impaired, fully impaired, color blindness, contrast blindness, sensitive to brightness etc.

During the last 8 to 10 years closed captioning and subtitles for videos were introduced in IFE systems for hearing impaired passengers. That has been touted by airlines has a major accessibility feature. But there is really not much that airlines can take credit of in this case. The closed captioning and subtitles were made mandatory in the wider media markets much earlier and the airline industry only inherited it as part of media acquisition. It did involve crossing substantial technical hurdles starting from sourcing media with CC/ST data, distributing it to seats and presenting it to passengers. It continues to cost more to airlines to carry media with subtitles and closed captioning. The motivation though is mostly to make the media accessible to non-native language speakers than to cater to hearing impaired passengers.

For visually impaired passengers there had not been any attempt to make IFE systems accessible. Until recently. Last year there was an announcement by Air Canada where they were attempting to implement a completely different user interface for completely visually impaired passengers. This was prompted partially by possible regulatory requirements by Canadian government. But this announcement or the launch of actual product did not result in widespread acceptance of the concept.

Unlike closed captioning and subtitles, there is not much cost involved to create a separate interface for visually impaired passengers. In fact, the existing interfaces themselves can be upgraded to overcome various visual impairments such as colorblindness, partial impairment etc.
In ideal world we would expect each IFE system to come with a standard set of accessibility solutions. Making each airline interface different for disabled passengers would force them to learn it every time they are onboard a new airline. There should standards around these solutions to ensure uniformity across airlines. APEX association’s Closed Captioning Working Group (CCWG) is already working on features such as Closed Captioning and audio descriptions. Also, there are many accessibility standards and guidelines available such as WCAG 2.0, ISO/IEC guidelines, Section 508 standards for electronic and information technology and so on. Apart from these, there are many implementations available outside IFE industry that can be referenced and the learnings can be leveraged. For example the handheld devices such as phones and tablets already come with features such as audio feedbacks, font sizes, contrast/brightness settings etc. These can easily be integrated with the IFE interfaces.

All the airlines wants to differentiate themselves from their competitors when it comes to passenger experience. And hence it is justifiable to have unique user interfaces that are in sync with the airline’s corporate design language. But it is still possible to incorporate many of the accessibility features without going out of the bounds of their corporate guidelines.

We may not be able to make the systems accessible to all passengers, but there are still a couple of things that airlines can immediately do.First, incorporate accessibility features in their existing interface by providing audio feedbacks, settings for font sizes, contrast and brightness. And second, provide a separate interface for fully visually impaired passengers. This should be done over and above the work that is already being done for hearing impaired passengers.

Going forward, we should also expect more hardware driven innovation in accessible entertainment systems such as braille enabled portable entertainment units or IVR-like units connected to wheelchairs so that passengers have access to some entertainment while they are waiting at the gates. These systems can also be used to provide gate information, flight information and nearby food options to these passengers.

There have been countries such as Canada and Australia that have already implemented rules and regulations to enforce accessibility implementation in in-flight entertainment systems and many other countries including US. Clearly there needs to be a lot more urgency to get these projects off the ground.
But disabled passengers definitely deserve much better from airlines without a nudge from governments.



Mangesh Adgaonkar
Director, CoKinetic Systems India