Committee Corner
News from ALPA's Committees

Cockpit Image Recorders Not Needed Or Wanted

ALPA Engineering And Air Safety

Air Line Pilot, September 2004, p.30

ALPA is strongly opposed to having video cameras installed in airline cockpits because (1) the benefits of video imaging are vastly overrated, (2) far more effective and efficient tools exist to obtain the data necessary to accurately investigate an accident and help prevent future accidents, and (3) legal protections to prevent abuse of recorded information, especially in foreign countries, are inadequate to protect pilots’ privacy.

That was the message ALPA took to the NTSB in late July when the Safety Board held a 2-day public hearing in Washington, D.C., on the feasibility and desirability of installing cockpit imaging recorders (CIRs) in airline and turbine-powered general aviation aircraft.

Capt. Paul Rice (United), ALPA’s vice-president of administration/secretary, told television reporters, "The Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a government/industry group convened to analyze accidents and rank the critical actions that would enhance airline safety, didn’t include cockpit video anywhere on its list. Nor are we aware of any strong desire by the FAA for cockpit cameras."

Capt. John Cox (US Airways), ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Chairman, gave sworn testimony at the NTSB hearing: "The question we have to answer is, ‘Will cockpit image recorders capture significant information that is not currently available to investigators, thus enabling them to solve accidents more definitively and efficiently?’

"Our newer large aircraft are equipped with DFDRs [digital flight data recorders] recording close to 1,000 parameters at high sample rates," he pointed out. "This is objective data—the type the investigators need, not information that is subject to conjecture or speculation. A great many of the pilots’ inputs are recorded along with a vast array of aircraft system and performance information."

Capt. Cox said he was "skeptical of the claim that image recorders would add a great deal to investigations where extensive recording capabilities already exist." He added, "To better assess the claim that CIRs might help accident investigators find the probable causes of unsolved accidents, I asked ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department to compile a list of air carrier accidents in the United States for the last 20 years that remain unsolved. They couldn’t come up with a single accident. Certainly a credit to the Board, but a clear indication that CIR installations won’t make a dent in the already low accident rate for air carrier aircraft."

Capt. Cox’s involvement in the NTSB investigation of the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 near Pittsburg, Pa.—eventually laid to an uncommanded reversal in the B-737’s rudder control system—showed him the potential danger of CIRs short-circuiting a thorough accident investigation.

He warned, "During that investigation, and to this day, some people claim that if we’d had a CIR, we would have been able to tell whether the pilot was pushing on the rudder pedal, or the pedal pushing on the pilot. To make such a claim for the CIR reflects a very poor grasp of the physics involved, not to mention the human performance issues. With video as a guide, and without more detailed DFDR information, we might well have reached exactly the wrong conclusion [in this investigation], and a critical safety deficiency would still exist today."

The Safety Board has cited the 1997 SilkAir B-737 fatal crash in the Board’s advocacy for image recorders. However, Capt. Cox pointed out, this was a case in which the existing recording capability was intentionally disabled.

"A video camera is easily defeated with something as simple as a piece of tape," he argued. "The obvious lesson here is that when a cockpit occupant has devious or criminal intent, no amount of recording capability will affect the outcome. The crash will still occur."

On a different issue, Capt. Cox noted that a British study that others discussed during the hearing found that the image recorder as a stand-alone device is not likely to be of much use to an accident investigator.

"What then do we do for the smaller turbine aircraft?" Capt. Cox continued. "We must continue the quest for a reasonably priced, yet robust parametric recorder for these aircraft. Augmented GPS recorders show promise, with the added bonus that they may be FOQA-capable—thus enabling proactive safety-enhancing initiatives. But other technologies also should be explored."

Jim Johnson, manager of ALPA’s Legal Department, testified on the legal issues that concern CVRs and make ALPA opposed to requiring CIRs in airline cockpits.

"In 1963, when the CVR was first proposed to be installed on air transport category aircraft, ALPA expressed concern that the information would violate the right of personal privacy and be made available to be used adversely against the pilots involved," Johnson recalled. "Of particular concern was employer discipline and FAA enforcement action. ALPA recommended that any rule requiring a CVR also prohibit the use of cockpit voice recordings for any purpose other than accident investigation and that the information not be publicly disclosed. When the regulation was promulgated, it did prohibit the use of CVR information in FAA enforcement proceedings but did not address other disciplinary actions."

Shortly after CVRs were mandated, the Freedom of Information Act was enacted. ALPA was instrumental in passing the 1982 statutory amendments that were designed to protect the CVR from FOIA disclosure. The amendments also delayed the Board’s disclosure of the portions of the CVR transcript that were relevant to the accident until either the public hearing or 60 days after the accident.

After the 1982 legislation was passed, ALPA experienced more-aggressive litigation tactics in aviation accident cases and widespread use of demonstrative evidence. However, Johnson noted, "the event that caused ALPA to aggressively pursue additional statutory protections for CVR data was the 6 o’clock news playing the CVR tapes from the 1988 Delta Flight 1141 takeoff accident at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport. Pilots were outraged that their privacy had been blatantly violated and demanded action to limit the CVR data to its intended purpose—accident investigation. ALPA responded by seeking additional statutory protections.

"ALPA’s goal in pursuing additional protective legislation in 1990 was to fully protect the CVR and limit its use to accident investigation only," Johnson continued. "This legislation would have prohibited the use of the CVR by litigants and in all adverse actions against the pilots involved. Unfortunately, from ALPA’s standpoint, that goal was not realized.

"There were practical political issues in getting such restrictive legislation passed," Johnson said, "and also a constitutional concern regarding fair trial issues. The result was the 1990 law, which did not fully meet ALPA’s objectives. This statute allowed discovery of the CVR by litigants if it could be shown that the transcript made available by the NTSB was (1) not sufficient for a party to receive a fair trial, and (2) that disclosure of the CVR information is necessary for a fair trial."

Johnson said that the 1990 legislation has prevented the news media from obtaining copies of the CVR from U.S. domestic accidents for broadcast. However, he said, current legislation has not been able to prevent such abuse in foreign accidents such as the accident near Cali, Colombia, involving an American Airlines B-767.

Furthermore, pilots have not been protected from the use of CVR data against them in criminal proceedings, or in employers’ disciplinary actions, except by the limitations imposed in some collective-bargaining agreements. Many but not all of ALPA’s agreements contain such collective-bargaining protections. However, Johnson observed, many pilots do not work under collective-bargaining agreements and have no such protection.

In the 1990 legislation, ALPA was also successful in obtaining additional delay in the NTSB’s public release of the relevant portions of the CVR transcript. The transcript is not released until the public hearing or, if no public hearing is held, when the majority of the other factual reports are placed in the public docket. In 2000, the legislation was amended to extend the 1990 CVR legislation to video recorders and surface transportation recorders.

"From ALPA’s perspective," Johnson summarized, "our legislative efforts have provided some protection from disclosure of CVR recordings but fall short of addressing the privacy concerns and achieving the original intent of CVRs, which is that such data are to be used for accident investigation purposes only."