A human rights complaint filed against Air Canada has been resolved with the carrier promising to make its inflight entertainment systems accessible to visually impaired passengers.
Two Ontario residents filed a complaint against Air Canada with the Canadian Human Rights Commission after finding they were unable to use the airline’s touchscreen system to access movies and other diversions during their flights.
The complainants contended they were being deprived of a service that was available to other passengers and urged Air Canada to adopt a system with push buttons and other tactile indicators.
Air Canada has since announced it’s committing to making all inflight entertainment systems accessible across its fleet of aircraft.
The airline has already made changes to the systems in use on its 787 and 777 aircraft and promises future planes set for delivery in 2017 will be equipped with accessible technology.
The passengers who filed the human rights complaint say the settlement has exceeded their expectations.
“We never thought that they would go as far as confirming that everything from now on would be accessible,” plaintiff Marcia Yale said in a telephone interview.
“That’s more than we ever could have hoped for.”
Yale said her grievance with Air Canada began about eight years ago when she discovered the airline had made changes to its inflight entertainment systems.
Instead of the push-button controls she was accustomed to using to scroll through movies and TV shows, she said she was chagrined to discover a new touch-screen system on the back of the seat in front of her.
The new design prevented her from navigating the various menus or browsing through available channels, which in turn left her feeling shortchanged.
“We’re paying the same money for travel and we’re not getting the same service,” Yale said of the situation at the time.
Yale soon joined forces with John Rae, a fellow member of the Alliance for the Equality of Blind Canadians, to file a joint complaint through the Human Rights Commission.
Air Canada did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Yale said the airline initially defended its practice by contending that inflight entertainment was not part of the service they provided because the hardware was built into the aircraft.
Yale said the company did make moves to address their concerns, however, by designing a template that could fit overtop of the touchscreen and provide a tactile frame of reference.
Air Canada issued a statement saying no inflight entertainment systems on the market today are currently designed to be accessible to the visually impaired, forcing the company to get creative internally.
The company said it adapted the current system, provided by Panasonic, to make it accessible. Yale said the new system now features a hand-held remote control, as well as audio functions that can be enabled through the touchscreen.
“We are extremely proud to have a creative and innovative team that was able to develop these solutions over the years. As technology evolves, we are hopeful that (inflight entertainment) systems manufacturers will follow our lead,” said Eric Lauzon, Air Canada’s manager of multimedia entertainment.
Enhancements to inflight entertainment and other seemingly secondary services will be crucial for airlines that hope to stay competitive, says one analyst.
Barry Prentice, professor with the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, said air carriers increasingly struggle to compete on price.
This forces airlines to make themselves more attractive through offerings such as food and drink menus, low baggage charges or quality of inflight entertainment, he said.
“Accessibility for the visually impaired is an example of nonprice competition that could be difficult for a competing airline to offer, or at least to do so at the same cost,” Prentice said.