The Question Every Airline Needs to Answer: Why No Cockpit Video?

Bradley Gross, Esq. Managing Partner
Bradley Gross, Esq. Managing Partner

I’m going to take a moment from my usual legal technology-related posts to pose an obvious but unanswered question to the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as to the airlines themselves: Why aren’t commercial aircraft cockpits equipped with video cameras?

Like many of you, I’ve been following the coverage of the recent tragic crash of the Germanwings jetliner. While the details of why the plane went down are still unknown, there is one thing we do know; namely, the crash was preceded by several minutes of silence from the pilots. During the last ten minutes of the flight, no voice communications were transmitted from the plane. Now┬áinvestigators are hoping that the recovered cockpit voice recorder will provide some details about what the pilots were doing (or not doing) in the final few minutes of the flight.

Think about that for a moment: we are hoping that a cockpit voice recorder successfully recorded the pilots’ voices sufficiently clearly so that investigators can piece together what might have happened. We are hoping that the ambient noise levels in the cockpit were sufficiently low, and the pilots’ voices were sufficiently loud, so that investigators can make out what the pilots were saying. Of course, in relying upon the voice recordings to piece together what happened, we are required to assume that there was nothing going on in the cockpit that caused the pilots to speak in a certain tone, or to say certain things. We are required to assume that the pilots weren’t being forced to keep quiet, and that they were sufficiently coherent to describe, in detail, the conditions in the cockpit. We are also assuming that they wanted to speak. Simply put, voice recordings only allow us tohear what happened, and not see what happened–and that’s the problem that needs to be addressed.

The lack of video equipment in modern commercial aircraft cockpits is incomprehensible.

Boeing 787 Cockpit
Boeing 787 Cockpit

And the FAA’s failure to require video in the cockpit is, in this day and age, simply inexcusable. Perhaps when cockpit voice recorders were introduced many decades ago (circa 1967), voice recorders were cutting edge technology. Now, however, voice recorders are about as “cutting edge” as electric lights. How can it be that we are still guessing about what happened in a cockpit because we can only hear, but not see, what happened?

I’m sure critics would object to in-cockpit video feeds on privacy grounds; however, pilots have no greater privacy rights than school bus drivers, taxi drivers, or any other public transportation operators. In fact, arguably they have fewer (if any) privacy rights since they are merely contract employees for corporations that are neither owned nor controlled by the government. I’m sure technology-based objections could be raised, such as the risk of hackers spying on cockpit video feeds (though I can’t imagine anything more boring than watching pilots fly a plane–except maybe watching a take off or landing.) But encryption methods could ensure that video feeds were viewed only by authorized flight personnel–so “hacking” isn’t really a problem at all.

Many jurisdictions require police to wear body cams, so why can’t pilots wear cameras? Why can’t camera’s be mounted in cockpits? Modern planes have high-speed internet capabilities, and video files can be compressed to the point where they can be easily transmitted online (or, of course, easily stored on the same device that stores cockpit audio recordings).

So, can anyone tell me why we are not requiring video in the cockpit of planes when we have the technology to capture cockpit video and feed it back to air traffic controllers in real time? Why are we using 1967 cockpit technology in 2015? Why are we still left guessing about what happens in the cockpits of planes carrying hundreds of people?

A picture is worth a thousand words–even at 36,000 feet. Let’s start taking pictures, shall we?