No flight information please – we’re British

Ronnie Cohen wonders why at least one budget airline flying from the UK targets its flight information at continental and American passengers.

When you fly, you are likely to be able to see moving-map information on the plane’s in-flight entertainment system. This is real-time flight information updated constantly on the plane’s video screens from its computer systems. It shows altitude, outside air temperature, ground speed, distance travelled and the distance to destination.

I recently flew to Prague for a short trip with a budget airline and I noticed that the moving-map system provided information in English and Czech. The Czech version used metric units, namely degree Celsius, metres and kilometres whereas the English language version used Fahrenheit, feet and miles. So Czech passengers were catered for and Americans too, but less thought appears to have been given to British passengers (who happened to be in the majority on the flight).

Whilst one can see the need to translate between languages, is unit conversion really necessary? During the Olympic Games in Rio last year, everyone used metric units, including the British and Americans. Perhaps unit conversion for English language displays is done for simplicity – a majority of those around the world whose first language is English are Americans, so flight software may have been written with them in mind.

Here is the table of units used in the English and Czech language versions on the plane’s moving-map information system:

Phenomenon Units in English version Units in Czech version
Outside air temperature Fahrenheit Celsius
Altitude feet metres
Ground speed miles per hour kilometres per hour
Distance miles kilometres

Many readers will have noticed also that the BBC’s prestigious series Planet Earth 2 was aimed primarily at the US market, and Commonwealth audiences were expected to get their heads around US units of measurement, including degrees Fahrenheit. Although the Prime Minister may claim otherwise, is it possible that commercial pressures are now relegating the UK towards the status of America’s 51st state?

As we know, there are a host of activities including trade, manufacture, science, medicine, international publishing and world sporting events that require a common and universal measurement system in order to ensure mutual understanding. Over the past two centuries this has become the metric system. Foisting US measures on other English-speaking peoples who have made the switch to the global measurement system leads to confusion, misunderstanding and incomprehension.

Airlines, authors of flight software and television producers please take note.

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18 Responses to No flight information please – we’re British

  1. Daniel Jackson says:

    I believe the use of non-metric units in English have everything to do with American's creating the program. Whomever was responsible for translating the English data into any other language would know that the persons using that language would be completely lost in units other than metric and made the conscious choice to seek metric data.

    It should also be noted that everywhere in the airline industry, the Celsius temperature is the measured temperature, even in the US and the Fahrenheits are the conversion. It may even be true that all the other phenomena are also measured in metric and just converted to USC. Thus those reading the metric values are seeing the true measured values and those seeing USC are seeing fake data.

    Foreign audiences who encounter non-metric units in TV programs aimed at Americans cannot be assumed to know or are willing to learn the outdated units. In reality the numbers will go in one ear and out the other. Consistent use of gibberish may over time turn people off to such programs in the future or those watching the programs will focus on understandable and interesting aspects of what they are seeing and ignore what is not understood or will never be understood. All one need do is quiz the average viewer concerning USC, even among Americans and see how many people will actually remember any of the spoken dialog.

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  2. Alex Bailey says:

    I’ve seen this in different forms several times over the years. I usually fly to North America at least once a year and it was with a great deal of irony I noted that both Delta and US Airways showed flight information, even on long-haul domestic flights, in both metric and non-metric; Virgin Atlantic is consistently imperial only. Several complaints to Virgin only ever illicited one response which they never followed up on. I gave up and now rarely fly with them anyway.

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  3. Charlie P says:

    @ronniec
    I do not understand the point you are making here. The Fahrenheit, foot, mph and mile are all exactly the same size in both the US and UK measurement systems, unlike the gallon and the ton. So the English display you talk about is equally valid to English speakers from both sides of the pond.

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  4. Michael Glass says:

    Charlie, I think that both measurements should be supplied. Virgin Atlantic should get up-to-date.

    (By the way, the foot and the mile aren't precisely the same. The UK uses the international mile while the US uses both the international mile and the US survey mile. These two measurements are different by about 2 parts per million, so the US survey mile is about 3mm longer. See http://www.pobonline.com/articles/91189-from-the-ground-up-the-international-versus-u-s-survey-foot

    Please read this article. This apparently trivial difference is a real headache for mapping in the United States.

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  5. Ronnie Cohen says:

    @Charlie P

    The fact that the flight information system uses Fahrenheit is a giveaway that the non-metric units used were designed for an American audience. They are now the main users of the Fahrenheit temperature scale. The British mainly use Celsius these days to express temperature. Celsius is the dominant scale in weather reports in the UK.

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  6. Cliff says:

    @ Charlie P
    Fahrenheit, foot, mph and mile may be the same size in the US and UK but I'm British and Fahrenheit and feet are alien to me. I never use those measurements. Lovers of the old British Empire's method of measurement are always bleating about losing their freedom to see and use their archaic measurements. What about my freedom to see and use the system of measurement I understand, the one I learnt in school and use every day at work and my life in general?
    I've stopped reading British newspapers and become very selective at what British TV programs I watch or magazines I read because I'm sick of being given imperial measurements and imperial measurements only. Where's my choice? I don't understand stones, pounds and ounces. I never use them. I don't see why I should have to get my calculator out to work out how big an eighteen-foot sitting room, one thousand square foot or half an acre is when I read an estate agent's brochure or see a TV property program. It's been fifty two years since the government started the changeover. Surely that's long enough to cater to those of us who wish to live in the twenty first century.

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  7. Ezra Steinberg says:

    @CharlieP:

    So, why should those airlines discriminate against the poor Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, South African, etc. who happens to be flying from (say) London to New York and who has no clue what "degrees Fahrenheit" or "miles per hour" mean?

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  8. John Frewen-Lord says:

    I have just taken a flight on Thomas Cook Airlines, and it exactly the same there. The only imperial I found of any use was altitude, but only because that is what is used in the aviation world. What was most irritating was temperatures in deg F.

    Currently in Spain, I really find everything being 100% metric so easy and refreshing. If only the UK could drag itself fully into the 21st century.

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  9. BrianAC says:

    Fahrenheit, foot, mph, mile, gallon, pound and the ton should be internationally re-classified as American measures, not British and most certainly NOT English.

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  10. Stan says:

    My observation is a simple one. The persistence of imperial units serves no useful purpose in the UK. No one is wholly accommodated by it whatever their preferences. Everyone will encounter non-preferred units in some instances because there is no consistency about which units are used when.

    The only answer is to phase out imperial because we can't do that with metric.

    The article above describes one of many examples of where the those who prefer metric are denied them.

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  11. Charlie P says:

    The obvious solution is to have, as well as an option for language, an option for measurement units. The same as we get on our own satnavs. That way we could have English with Celsius, feet, mph and miles, for example. Or for those who prefer SI: kelvins, metres, metres per second and metres.

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  12. Alex Bailey says:

    @Charlie P

    Yes, that would be the “obvious” solution but this is part of the problem, there are still so many fields in which metric is NOT given as a choice or it is assumed that if you speak English that you want to measure in imperial. My iPhone is a good example of that where you can have everything in the options set to metric and British English yet if you ask for directions using Siri (i.e. hands free whilst driving) it defaults back to miles until you unlock the phone.

    This is precisely the problem with giving people a choice rather than legislating. While the Magna Carta was good enough to indicate that we should all expect to be using the same system of measures current law allows people to make it up as they go along with the result that many of us are forced to use something that we were never taught at school but somehow expected to understand.

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  13. BrianAC says:

    The obvious solution is to have, apart from an option for language, a single, unified set of measurement units that can be used in all languages. The world is so close to this now with USA being the only real hold out, it should already be a given.
    After WWII, USA, assisted by the UK empire, took most of the world into the imperial hotchpotch non-system, and it really was most of the world (I will even allow a bonus of saying the whole world if we include car wheels and pipe threads). However, there was, and still is, a more user friendly system, most importantly a SYSTEM, and a system based on the counting system the entire world used, base 10.
    Despite almost total world dominance, the world changed, it moved away from the imperial and towards the metric, the system now used and understood by the vast majority of the worlds people. The only ones not familiar are those who choose not to attempt to change.
    UK is more than 50% all metric educated so we have no real problem. The metric system has been in use in UK for well over 100 years. Anyone still young enough to fly would have no problem with metric in flight information, anyone still young enough to drive would have no problem with metric road signs and distance.
    Lets just get on with it and go with the programme, join the rest of the world.

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  14. Mark Williams says:

    @John Frewen-Lord:

    About time airline operations and air traffic control were metricated, too, then. 🙂

    @Charlie P:

    Even more obvious solution: ditch the option for language in favour of pictograms, get rid of all the words apart from place names or airport codes and standardise on metric-only as on ferries, etc. Saves on button wear and software complexity & testing, universally understood, no ambiguity, greatly reduced possibility of conversion error internally, also usable by the illiterate. Do aeroplane displays really gain anything of value from proliferating such options?

    As can be seen from other comments, a rigged set of limited options is not necessarily very meaningful anyway. FWIW, my GPS receiver allows a choice between air pressure in various archaic units, millibars (displayed ‘mbar’) and hectopascals (displayed ‘Pa’ <sic>). Angles are a choice between [NATO] ‘mils’, {N/S/E/W}+ and all manner of formats for degrees—but no actual radians or gradians. Some choice! Its firmware is from the USA in case you hadn't already guessed…

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  15. BrianAC says:

    ICAO states specifically and unequivocally that SI is to be used for all air and ground operations. "ICAO Annex 5, chapter 3.1.1"
    http://code7700.com/pdfs/icao_annex_5.pdf see page 19.
    Unfortunately as USA does not play ball, neither do most others (apart from Russia, China, N. Korea).
    So, ICAO then gives a list of all the other units that can be used instead of, or along with SI units. Annex 5, chapter 3.2.1 page 20.
    Thus perpetual confusion is maintained in the cockpit.
    An interesting proposed amendment from United Arab Emirates. It seems even Airbus craft are pre-programmed in non-SI units and operators have to programme them for SI!!
    http://www.icao.int/Meetings/a39/Documents/WP/wp_160_en.pdf

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  16. Jackthesmilingblack says:

    Have you noticed how LCC airlines have problems with 24-hour time?
    Classics include "07.30 pm" and "02.25 am"
    AirAsia kindly note.
    Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

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  17. Martin Vlietstra says:

    @Jackthesmilingblack: Many years ago I toured Iceland as part of a partly-German, partly English tourist group. One evening after a rather tiring day, the guide (an Icelandic woman) announced "Supper will be at half-past seven this evening" followed by "Abendessen is heute um halb sieben". I picked up on this immediately – the Germans say "half [before] eight". I asked her about this later and found out that there was no consistency between Danish or Icelandic either (Iceland was once a Danish colony). I then suggested to her that she use the 24-hour clock as this would remove the scope for mistakes. She agreed.

    The reason that the metric system is as prescriptive as it is is to avoid problems such as this.

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  18. BrianAC says:

    @ Jackthesmilingblack, 2017-03-20 at 14:35

    I notice the UK TV media go a step 'better' than even that with the time given as "7 a.m. in the morning", on a regular basis. I have also heard " ... at 05:00 hours in the morning ".
    I wonder if this is really for the audience, or just dumb do, as dumb is. Or for the Aussies here, dumb doo!

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