Should Aircraft Come Equipped With Flight Deck Video Recorders?

When accidents happen with aircraft, investigators always strive to locate the virtually indestructible “black box” to understand what went wrong. These record flight data and audio from the cockpit and are usually enough for investigators to get a clear picture of the sequence of events. However, there is an ongoing debate on whether or not planes should also have flight deck image recorders installed.

Boeing 777 front view
Should cockpits be fitted with crash-resistant image recorders? Photo: Getty Images

A view of the cockpit environment

Independent US Federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), has renewed its insistence that commercial jetliners be equipped with crash-resistant flight deck video recorders. The agency says such visual data would help determine the cockpit crew’s actions in crashes such as recent ones in Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Texas.

On Tuesday, in a statement, the agency once more called on regulators to,

“Require aircraft (…) to install a crash-resistant flight recorder system on all newly manufactured turbine-powered, nonexperimental, nonrestricted-category aircraft; and/or require the retrofit of existing aircraft with such equipment. The crash-resistant flight recorder system should record cockpit audio and images with a view of the cockpit environment.”

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not want to mandate that operators install such devices, citing problems with privacy, costs, and security, along with other issues. Meanwhile, the NTSB suggests that operators themselves install the technology, not waiting for an FAA mandate.

Pilots have raised concerns over privacy and issues with data security when it comes to potential flight-deck video surveillance. Photo: Airbus

Concerns for privacy, costs, and security

The NTSB first introduced the idea of cockpit camera recorders in 2000. The agency then said they “would provide critical information to investigators about the actions inside the cockpit immediately before and during an accident.” Airlines were understandably not eager given the additional costs of installing new technology.

The argument against is that there would not be much more useful information gained from video than what could be gleaned by investigators from cockpit voice recorder (CVR) along with flight data recorder (FDR). Pilots also fear that flight-deck visual recordings would impact the way they perform their job.

Not only would they be constantly monitored by their employers, but just as has happened with voice data in the past, there is a risk of the recordings being leaked in other circumstances than for incident investigations. And where only transcripts of audio recordings are usually made available – and edited for relevance – video material would need to be viewed rather than read.

Malaysia Airlines 777-200
The proponents of the technology say that it could help solve accidents such as the mystery of MH370. Photo: Laurent ERRERA via Wikimedia Commons

Would it help increase public trust?

The propagators of cockpit cameras say that visual data would have been instrumental in cases such as the disappearance of Malaysia Airways Flight 370. If both pilots were potentially incapacitated, audio recordings would not have provided much help.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has been discussing the potentiality of cockpit video recorders in its panels since 1995. As late as 2016, the UN body’s technical commission released a working paper that said,

“…availability of video recordings of the situation in the cockpit possessed to investigators could accelerate efficiently the process of investigation, to determine explicitly causes of the crash and to increase public trust to conclusions of the investigation commission.”

At the time, many media outlets took it as a call from the ICAO for video recorders to be standard equipment in future commercial aircraft cockpits. However, the organization confirmed to Aviation Today that it was only requesting comments on a draft amendment to Annex 6.

What are your feelings on flight-deck visual recorders? What are the pros and cons? Would they provide enough additional useful information to warrant their installment? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.