Air safety
Air safety

Jul 1, 2000 12:00 PM
Carey Adams

EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean near Nantucket Island on Oct. 31, 1999, killing all 217 on board. The cause of the crash has yet to be determined, but speculation has centered around comments recorded on the cockpit voice recorder. Investigators suggest the comments indicate the plane might have been crashed intentionally by one of the pilots.

To supplement the voice recorder, a surveillance camera in the cockpit could have detected any such deliberate action taken by the pilot. The Security Industry Association (SIA) has begun lobbying Congress to allocate funds to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to examine whether CCTV cameras should be installed in the cockpit of all planes.

"It would add to the records that are already kept, particularly in the event of an emergency," contends Richard Chase, assistant executive director of SIA.

In January, the NTSB recommended that all turbine-powered aircraft currently exempt from flight recorders rules be required to be equipped with crash-protected video recorders. Typically, turbine-powered planes are smaller than commercial aircraft and are capable of carrying fewer than 10 passengers. Under the NTSB recommendation, the requirement would first affect planes that carry passengers for hire and take effect within five years of adoption of a technical standard covering the devices by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Chase says installing a small, digital surveillance camera in the cockpit of planes would eliminate the mystery of whether a crash was caused by pilot error or by mechanical failure. The camera would be small enough to fit in the configuration of the cockpit and would record on a 30-minute looping cycle.

"Though we are still in the exploration phase of this, we think the camera should focus on the instrument panel," says Chase.

SIA and NTSB officials say cameras recording pilots may not seem like a typical security issue, but it would serve its purpose if a pilot were caught committing an act of sabotage or committing an error in judgment.

"It would serve more as an information collecting device, but I would say in an emergency it is a security issue," says Chase. Using a camera to catch pilot error might serve as an information tool to prevent other disasters.

But officials with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents more than 55,000 pilots at 51 airlines in the U.S. and Canada, say cameras in cockpits serve no security purpose.

"Can anyone point to one airline crash where a camera would have prevented the crash?" asks ALPA spokesman John Mazor. "I don't think anyone can. This only serves to spy on pilots."

Officials with ALPA point out that cameras cannot enhance the information gathered on cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders. "It doesn't give anything we need to know that we don't already have access to in the cockpit," Mazor says.

ALPA president Duane Woerth told a U.S. Congressional subcommittee on aviation in April that pilots feel the cameras would violate their privacy.

"The privacy issues stemming from the installation of cockpit video cameras are of prime importance to the Air Line Pilots Association. Preventing the release of the imagery for inappropriate purposes is ALPA's highest concern in this regard. ALPA has the responsibility to protect our members from the misuse of recorders, but that is sometimes difficult or impossible to achieve," Woerth says. "Based on past experience and existing legislation, ALPA has no confidence that we can completely prevent cockpit video abuses and inappropriate releases, either domestically or internationally. While our industry and government generally acknowledge the need for protection of recorded information, this acknowledgement is not necessarily recognized or embraced outside these organizations."

After the NTSB has listened to the cockpit voice recorders of an airplane that has had an accident, the aviation board typically releases transcripts of the recordings to the media. In the U.S., playing the recordings violates a protective language agreement for sensitive recorded material advocated by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association. However, ALPA points out that cockpit voice recordings find their way to the broadcast media and the Internet.

Earlier this year NBC's 'Dateline' program played a copy of the actual tape of an American Airlines accident near Cali, Colombia in South America. Aviation safety officials believe portions of the tape were recorded illegally and smuggled to NBC. The playing of the tape infuriated ALPA.

"The CVR (cockpit voice recorder) has been used for sensationalistic purposes by the media. It has been used by litigants in civil and criminal cases. It has been used by employers for surveillance and disciplinary purposes. So although the NTSB has internal procedures to guard against such abuses and events, we are still not where we need to be with regard to providing absolute protections for the CVR recordings," Woerth said during his address to the aviation subcommittee.

Chase says he understands the pilots' concerns, but suggests that setting up the cameras on a 30 minute looping cycle would prevent spying, and the video would be disposed of if no mishap occurred.

"We don't feel the pilots should worry about the archiving of information. There is no need to archive," says Chase.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway refused to comment on the position of officials in the safety organization regarding video recorders on all planes, but said its recommendation about video recorders for turbine-powered planes speaks for the NTSB.

The NTSB's recommendation to have surveillance cameras in the cockpit of turbine-powered aircraft follows adoption of its final report on the crash of a Scenic Airlines Cessna 208B in Montrose, Colo. The 1997 crash killed all nine people aboard - the pilot and eight employees of the U.S. Department of Interiors Bureau of Reclamation who were on a charter flight returning to Page, Ariz. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be the pilot's error to maintain sufficient airspeed while maneuvering the airplane.

NTSB says the use of video cameras could capture instrument readings and pilot actions for post-crash analysis.

Woerth told the aviation subcommittee that video cameras are useless in determining what occurred during an airline mishap.

"It is widely acknowledged among air safety investigators that cockpit video is not the panacea that laymen believe it to be. The benefits perceived by lay persons far exceed those that trained air safety investigators recognize and acknowledge as possible,'" says Woerth. "Installation of advanced flight recorders and implementation of Flight Operations Quality Assurance programs are two of the most effective air safety improvements being incorporated into our air transportation system today, and these offer far more safety potential than the installation of video cameras."

Chase says video cameras have their benefits, which should not be ignored.

"This is a crash security issue," Chase says.

FAA southeastern region spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen says the FAA plans to study the issue this year, but no timetable is set for making a decision.

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