Senator wants closed captioning of in-flight movies


Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) wants U.S. airlines to add closed captioning to movies that are shown during long flights in an effort to aid hearing impaired airline passengers. 

Harkin said he was considering adding an amendment requiring the airline industry to at least study the proposal to a $54 billion funding bill for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development during a markup of the measure on Thursday. 

“I have been trying for some time to get the airlines to provide closed captions on the movies on their airplanes. I can’t understand why they don’t do it. It doesn’t cost anything,” Harkin said after the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to send the measure to the full of the floor Senate.

{mosads}Harkin said the idea of close captioning in-flight movies may seem trivial, but he said it was very important to people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

“I have a friend of mine who’s deaf who is a lawyer who travels to Europe [who] likes to watch a movie, can’t,” Harkin said. “The only movie he can watch is a German or a French movie that has English subtitles. But if it’s an American movie, it has French subtitles and German subtitles and Chinese subtitles, but not English subtitles.”

The Iowa lawmaker said he was trying to bring in-flight movies in line with other areas of the film industry, like theaters and online services such as Netflix. 

“You can go to any movie now that’s released and if you’re hard-of-hearing or deaf, you can go up to a counter free of charges and get a pair of glasses that fit over your own glasses and you can read all the closed captions and follow the exact movie,” he said. “Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal, but if you’re hard-of-hearing or your deaf, it’s a very big deal.”

Harkin admitted he was personally affected by the lack of closed captions on in-flight movies on a recent international trip. 

“I just came back on a flight from Vienna last week. There’s was a movie I wanted to watch, I hadn’t seen it before,” he said. “It was an American movie, ‘Captain Phillips,’ I wanted to watch it. It had French subtitles and German and Chinese, but no English subtitles. I have been trying to get the airlines to do something about this, and they just won’t.”

The group that lobbies for airlines in Washington told The Hill that the industry’s opposition to closed captioning in-flight movies was being overstated by Harkin.

“As onboard entertainment technology is rapidly changing, airlines will continue working collaboratively with DOT and all stakeholders to further enhance the travel experience for our customers,” Airlines for America spokesman Vaughn Jennings said in an email.

The chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said Thursday that she would try to include the amendment addressing Harkin’s concerns in the final version of the transportation department funding measure when it reaches the Senate floor.

“This is a very poignant situation you’ve brought to the committee’s attention,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said. “Your advocacy for the disabled and handicapped are well-known. Let’s work together as we go to the floor, develop the language. Actually I look forward to trying to put it in manager’s package.”

-This story was updated with new information at 4:13 p.m.

Tags Barbara Mikulski Closed captioning Subtitling Technology Tom Harkin

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