Pilots resist FAA rule on cabin surveillance

The Federal Aviation and Administration has proposed a rule requiring airlines to install equipment in airplane cockpits for monitoring suspicious cabin behavior, drawing fire from some pilots who say such surveillance will distract from their navigation. But display system manufacturers say video devices can be manipulated to cause little interference in operations.

In a September Federal Register notice, the FAA asked for comments on a regulation that would demand airlines deploy a system allowing the flight crew to visually monitor the area outside the cockpit door. All passenger planes would need some way of permitting pilots to identify people requesting to enter the flight deck and to detect potential threats.

There are at least two options, according to the notice. Airlines would either have to install video cameras that can scan the area outside the cockpit door, or install peepholes in the cockpit door that provide a direct view of the cabin.

The draft regulation has been under way since the 2001 terrorist attacks, when the government assembled a rapid-response team to develop recommendations for improving security within the national aviation system. The experts agreed that cameras were a good solution for improving onboard monitoring.

However, the task force acknowledged that space constraints in the cockpit could be a challenge.

“Placement of a monitor in the limited space on the flight deck is a challenge,” said the rapid-response team, representing American Airlines, Boeing, the Association of Flight Attendants and the Air Line Pilots Association. “While there may be value in video or audio systems which provide information about activities throughout the cabin, we have no consensus on whether or how to proceed with this technology.”

The same task force also recommended reinforced cockpit doors, which are now standard on all airplanes.

Based on FAA estimates from 2003 data, the proposed rule would affect 6,190 planes. The total cost between 2004 and 2014 of installing video camera systems would be $185 million. Industry would have two years to comply with the final rule after adoption.

Some pilots say the proposed upgrades are superfluous, unreliable and expensive.

Gary Boettcher, president of the 22,000-member Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, submitted comments to the FAA opposing the video monitor portion of the rule.

“It is widely recognized by security experts that an airborne terrorist effort is presumably going to occur during takeoff or landing,” he said. “During these busy times of flights, pilots will be focused on flying the [aircraft] and will NOT be watching a monitor.”

Furthermore, Boettcher said, airlines do not have the money for “nice-to-have programs” in today’s economic climate.

“Airlines simply cannot afford to pay for safety programs that arguably have only a marginally positive affect on a more secure flight deck,” he said. “Cameras can be defeated and may provide a false sense of security and comfort.”

Boettcher submitted his own recommendations with his comments.

He said the most dependable monitoring system would involve a cabin crewmember screening the entranceway, while the pilot inspects the area through a flight deck door fisheye peephole. Then, the crewmember could verbally confirm that all is clear via the forward flight interphone station.

Boettcher added that the FAA should give cargo and passenger airlines the option to install a video monitoring system outside the flight deck but not mandate such a system. The FAA can fund a cabin-side entranceway monitoring system through the aviation trust fund or through congressional appropriations, if an airline voluntarily participates in the program.

Vendors, who stand to profit from the proposed enhanced monitoring system, admit that video surveillance can be costly, but say such equipment is necessary.

Geoffrey Hedrick, chief executive officer of Innovative Solutions and Support, which markets electronic flight information displays and advanced monitoring systems for the aviation industry, said, “Clearly the airlines are going to be apprehensive but clearly the airlines are sensitive to security.”

He added that his company’s navigation displays can be manufactured inexpensively to show both navigation and surveillance information. The pilot would press a button to change the screen to view what is happening in the cabin, and then release the button to return to a screen showing maps, routes and other guidance tools. Alternatively, the pilot could program the navigation screen to display a tiny inset of the cabin view.

Hedrick said that video systems would grant the flight and cabin crews visual contact, creating another layer of security.

FAA officials said they could not respond because they are currently reviewing comments on the proposal.

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