Closed-Circuit Television: The Time Has Come

For the second time this year, use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) in airliners has been blocked. Pity. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is blowing a real opportunity to advance safety and security.The first effort not taken was last May, when the FAA declared the matter of image recorders in the cockpit was “unsettled” and therefore would not require them to augment cockpit voice recorders (CVRs), or require them to be used in lieu of CVRs on those airplanes with no recording capability whatsoever.

The second non-action was taken on 28 October, when the FAA published “Security Related Considerations in the Design and Operation of Transport Category Airplanes.” This weighty document discussed measures to blunt a terrorist attack, such as separation of vital control systems (5 feet) and designation of a Least Risk Bomb Location (LRBL) where an explosive device brought aboard the airplane, and subsequently seized by the crew, could be placed so that if it detonated damage to the airplane would be minimized.

Buried deep in this final rule was this rejection of CCTV:

“Aerospace Services International proposed that closed circuit television be added to airplanes and submitted detailed suggestions for how these systems should operate.

“The concept of video monitoring has been discussed at aviation safety and security forums for some years. However, there are numerous concerns (especially as to violations of privacy) associated with the use of such systems, and at this point the potential benefits of requiring video monitoring do not outweigh the concerns.”

In other words, punt.

Let the record reflect that one airline, JetBlue Airways, already has installed CCTV to monitor the cabin. The picture is piped into the cockpit and has been found very useful for a number of purposes: monitoring the area around the locked cockpit door, coordinating cabin service with the overall progress of the flight, providing the pilots with a real-time assessment of ill or unruly passengers.

Aerospace Services International is headed by Billie Vincent, former chief of FAA security and now an independent security consultant. His proposal is within the state-of-the-art and is worth consideration, not out-of-hand dismissal. His concept, filed in the docket, merits quotation:

“1. Install covert CCTV systems in the passenger cabins of all commercial airliners. The cameras should be installed in such a manner that all areas of the passenger cabin, cabin attendant stations, cabin attendant rest areas, kitchens and external doors be readily viewable. Camera placement and mounting should minimize casual detection and preclude camera or cabling removal/disablement without special tools.

“2. All covert CCVT cameras should provide color images at normal cabin light levels and automatically provide high sensitivity monochrome images at reduced light levels …

“3. Install CCTV cameras on the exterior of all transport category commercial aircraft that provides the cockpit crews with views of:

a) Empennage
b) Upper and lower surfaces of the wings
c) Underside and undercarriage of the aircraft, and
d) Full views of the fuselage ….

“5. Require the installation of a viewing screen, or viewing screens, where either pilot in the cockpit can quickly view and have control of the CCTV in any area of the aircraft outside the cockpit on demand ….

“7. Require the capability of electronically activating a communications transmission system to send CCTV data to ground stations on demand by either the flight crew, remotely from an airline control center, or by a hostage rescue team.

“8. Require the installation of hardpoint external communications ports on all aircraft equipped with these CCTV systems to allow ground personnel to ‘tap’ into the CCTV system.

“The purpose of these recommendations is to create a situation where cockpit crews have full views of the passenger cabin and the exterior of the aircraft. The intent of these systems is to provide the cockpit crew with as much intelligence as possible about events in the interior of the aircraft without having to leave the cockpit.

“The ability to view the external areas of the aircraft would provide a valuable safety assist to the cockpit crew in the event of a failure or damage to a part, or parts of the aircraft structure ….”

In addition to JetBlue’s cabin coverage, it should be noted that the Boeing B777-300 features external cameras used by the crew on taxiing the aircraft, and the Airbus A380 features external cameras to give the passengers a unique view of the aircraft.

This activity has occurred by fits and starts, not in any coordinated industry fashion. It should be noted that not only does the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regard cockpit image recorders as one of its “Most Wanted” safety improvements, the Board in the past has urged the installation of external CCTV on the supersonic Concorde to provide the crew with a view of the landing gear and underside of the wings, as tire bursts flung bits of rubber that punched holes into the thin metal of the wing. None of this was visible from the cockpit of the needle-nosed airplane.

Billie Vincent has submitted a proposal that meets the times and is long overdue. If not for all aircraft, then certainly for new ones built after, say, 2010, cockpit/cabin/external imagery should be provided as a key linchpin to enhanced safety and security.