Editor’s Note: Wrestling with Cabin Surveillance

By David Jensen | June 1, 2002
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SINCE THE TRAGEDY OF SEPT. 11, much has been done to bolster air travel security in airports. However, little has been accomplished to secure the airplane–save the mandate to install bulletproof cockpit doors. Most airlines have been slow to make decisions regarding cabin surveillance.

At the annual Avionics Maintenance Conference (AMC) in Houston in April, Michael Thompson, Honeywell’s customer support specialist-recorder products, spoke of reasons why carriers hold back from installing video cameras in aircraft cabins. He shared with AMC attendees the feedback his company has garnered from customers pondering cabin surveillance systems–which, so far, are not required equipment. Thompson’s talk was based on polled data, as well as conversations with customers, and the information came from both U.S. and non-U.S. airlines. (Thompson says the general response was the same from carriers around the world.)

Generally, the airlines don’t oppose the addition of cabin surveillance systems, though none welcomes the extra expense and maintenance. "We want to do the right thing," Thompson says, speaking for the industry, "but do we know what the right thing is?

"Technologically, the manufacturers can provide just about anything the airlines want in cabin surveillance," he adds. Perhaps that makes the decision to equip with a cabin security system even more difficult. Here, according to Thompson, are just a few of the issues the operators have been wrestling with while considering cabin surveillance systems:

  • How many cameras would be needed?

  • Should the cameras be color or black and white?

  • Should infrared cameras be included?

  • Is the system viewed as a deterrent to illegal activity? If so, could most cameras be decoys?

  • What must be modified structurally to accommodate a camera system?

  • Should the imagery from the cabin be recorded?

  • What about DO-160 issues, for example, electromagnetic interference (EMI) with other onboard electrical systems?

  • How should the camera imagery be presented in the cockpit?

  • Will the system be scalable? Or will it have to be torn out in two or three years?

  • And should cabin surveillance systems be part of an aircraft minimum equipment list (MEL)? In other words, if a camera isn’t working, does the aircraft remain on the ground?

Despite these and many other issues, one airline has taken the plunge and has begun installing a cabin surveillance system in its airliners. JetBlue, which is a pioneer in the use of electronic flight bags (see page 32), is perhaps the first airline to incorporate cabin surveillance. One of its Airbus 320s has been fitted with a system, and the remaining 33 A320s (including new aircraft to be delivered) will be equipped by the end of this year, according to Fiona Morrisson, JetBlue’s director of corporate communications.

JetBlue’s system includes both hidden cameras and cameras visible to passengers. One visible camera looks back from above the cockpit door, and another looks forward from the galley in the back of the plane. Two 5-inch (12.7-cm) monitors, one for each flight crewman, have been "built into the cockpit," says Morrisson. The screens and accompanying controls are identical to those in the passenger seatbacks.

What helped make JetBlue’s decision to install a cabin surveillance system was the airline’s previous decision to equip its fleet with a LiveTV system. "We just linked the camera system into the existing [LiveTV] distribution network," says Glen Latta, LiveTV’s executive vice president. "We didn’t have to lay cable along the full length of the cabin." The systems installation was performed incrementally during three overnights.

While the passengers enjoy the selection of 24 direct TV channels, the flight crew has exclusive access to a "captain’s channel," showing imagery from the cabin. At the JetBlue pilots’ request, LiveTV also provides the Weather Channel in the cockpit. With a high-speed, bidirectional wireless link, JetBlue’s operations center can monitor the cabin while the aircraft is on the ground.

Believing the surveillance system can serve as a deterrent, flight attendants draw passenger attention to the system when they give their pre-takeoff briefing. They also mention the bulletproof doors, which have been installed in all JetBlue aircraft. "More importantly," says Morrisson, "the system allows the pilots to know what is going on in the cabin. They can see if something is going on and take action."

The system is important for enhanced security, but it is not a "no-go" item, according to Al Spain, JetBlue’s vice president-flight operations. A "peep hole" will allow pilots to view the area immediately behind the cockpit door and thus serves as a backup, should a camera fail. However, Latta points out that surveillance cameras can be replaced quickly, during an aircraft’s turnaround.

JetBlue does not record the video, nor does it data link imagery to the ground. The LiveTV system will allow added features, but Morrisson says JetBlue has no plans to expand its cabin surveillance system.

JetBlue’s decision to install cabin surveillance is commendable. But, with its single-type fleet and LiveTV systems on board, the airline is unique. As an industry model, it can only answer some of the many issues the other airlines must grapple with when considering cabin surveillance systems.

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