Winning an award is always good. Winning it for improving access to onboard entertainment for visually impaired customers is even better.
At the 2018 Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last month, airlines and the companies that design their cabins gathered to exhibit the best in cabin design and aircraft interior innovation. We wouldn’t miss it for the world, and this year we were thrilled to showcase something we’re very proud of – Accessible Inflight Entertainment, or aIFE for short. The platform was developed in collaboration with Guide Dogs for the Blind and IFE software experts Bluebox, who won a prestigious Crystal Cabin Award in recognition of our joint efforts to improve access to passengers with sight loss.
The annual Crystal Cabin Awards are the only awards for excellence in aircraft interiors, given to companies whose new products and services demonstrate genuine innovation. For a relatively small project, aIFE makes a huge difference to our passengers. It’s a world first, and now it’s an award winner too. And it all started with some customer feedback.
Listening to our customers
“I was getting complaints from visually impaired customers who were saying it’s no use talking about our amazing IFE if they couldn’t use it,” says Geraldine Lundy, our manager of passenger accessibility. We looked into doing something with our seatback systems but that was going to take a long time and cost a lot of money. That’s when one of our customers showed us their accessible tablet and it got us thinking. We already had tablets onboard to hand out to customers if their screens were broken so we thought there might be something we could do there.”
“Bluebox were the company that provide the current onboard tablets so we asked them if they could help,” says Steve Pollard who works in our inflight services team.
Once Geraldine and Steve had the green light to develop the idea they enlisted some people with a range of visual impairments to help them, from low vision to total blindness. At our training rigs in Crawley, we already run regular puppy familiarisation courses for the charity Guide Dogs for the Blind, who were delighted to put us in touch with people who could help bring the idea to life.
The first step was a workshop to nail down exactly what was needed. Bluebox then went away and developed the app, before we all regrouped and tested the design. . Guide Dogs for the Blind were 99% happy with what Bluebox had come up with, so we made a few more tweaks and quickly managed to load it onto all 200 of our onboard iPads. The final stage was to provide training and communicate the essential benefits to our special assistance and cabin crew teams so they could deliver the service with confidence.
Bluebox are industry experts in IFE software. By developing this system on tablets it enabled us to deploy aIFE across our fleet in super quick time and avoid the long development phase needed to add new programmes to the seatback system. We’re happy to say the new aIFE is now available on every one of our aircraft.
The app uses a high contrast, large text simplified interface that enables our blind and partially sighted customers to easily navigate our IFE. Among other benefits, it includes audio descriptive content and subtitles, controls and menus that are easy to detect and navigate, and support for multiple languages.
Geraldine and Steve are rightly proud of the Crystal Cabin Award and what they and Bluebox have achieved. “Someone bothered to write in, we listened and we acted,” says Geraldine. “It encapsulates what makes us Virgin Atlantic. We used what we had to broke the mould.”
“This allows our visually impaired customers to have an enriched IFE experience, just like everyone else,” says Steve. “The judges and the audience on the night felt emotive about this award – it really stood out from the crowd and touched a chord. Paul Smith, from Guide Dogs for the Blind, spoke to the judging panel and they were all really moved by his stories about being able to laugh with his family whilst watching the same films onboard our flights, whereas previously he’d felt a bit isolated. It’s great that something like this app can deliver so much happiness to our customers.”
But the final word really should go to our blind and partially sighted customers themselves. Here’s a few of the many positive comments we’ve received from our cabin crew:
“I just wanted to send a very quick note to compliment the success of the new accessibility tablet. I give this out on most flights and wanted you to know how well it as been received by our customers.”
“Feedback from my last customer was amazing. So good in fact that she says she will now choose to fly with us in the future based on the availability of the tablet and the care and compassion she receives from all teams from booking to baggage reclaim!”
“I just wanted to let you know that I’ve just landed from the Caribbean and we had a blind passenger in Upper Class use the accessibility iPad we now carry and he loved it. He was over the moon to be able to use it.”