Thursday, March 23, 2017

United Nations Air-Safety Arm Pushes for Video Recorders in Cockpits: International Civil Aviation Organization supports new technology to aid crash probes, faces pilots’ privacy concerns

The Wall Street Journal
Updated March 23, 2017 12:29 p.m. ET

The United Nations’ air-safety arm is pushing for video recorders to be installed in future airliner cockpits to assist investigations of serious incidents and crashes, in a move that puts safety gains above privacy drawbacks, according to agency documents and people familiar with the details.

Such a step has been opposed by pilots for decades due to concerns that such filming, which could potentially capture their images during a fatal accident or be used by airlines to monitor crews in nonemergency situations, would violate their privacy rights.

The proposal by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the world’s leading advocate of air safety and technical standards, aims to allay those concerns by using new technology that would avoid recording the faces or bodies of aviators.

The ICAO envisions systems designed to capture only images of flight instruments and the positions of switches. The goal is to re-create for investigators precisely what flight crews saw during emergency situations, and to determine whether cockpit displays were consistent with crew commands and actual flight conditions.

An agency spokesman said pilots would be able be able to erase the images at the end of flights. The recordings would be stored in crash-resistant “black boxes,” which would have to be accessed for viewing.

The ICAO spelled out its proposal, which hasn’t been reported before, in letters this year seeking comments from national aviation regulators by April 20. The agency wants airliners built in the next decade to adopt the technology.

The ICAO is the first major regulatory authority or standard-setting organization to formally call for using such technology to help unravel accidents. If adopted, the phasing-in of cameras would likely take at least several years.

Accident investigators, including the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, have long advocated cockpit-video cameras as important supplements to traditional cockpit-voice recorders and flight-data recorders.

“There’s no question it would help when a crash involves an intentional act,” said Richard Healing, a former NTSB member.

ICAO experts have determined that video images would have provided a significant aid to investigators in various crashes in which terrorism or pilot suicide were suspected.

The agency doesn’t have direct enforcement authority. But national regulatory bodies, industry trade associations and airline managers typically embrace its standards, which largely end up as mandatory rules. International treaty obligations and ICAO’s ability to publicly identify countries that balk also give the agency’s pronouncements substantial clout.

“It’s long past due” because “tragedies have occurred while ICAO has been studying the issue,” said Kenneth Quinn, a former senior U.S. aviation regulator who now heads the aviation practice of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

Mr. Quinn said public expectations demand trade-offs between pilot privacy and “a very clear and overdue need” to determine precisely what occurred each time a commercial aircraft goes down.

According to an internal ICAO working document prepared by Russian representatives to support the proposal, video images could accelerate future probes “to determine explicitly causes of the crash and to increase public trust” in the investigations. The document also notes that cockpit voice recorders are sometimes inadequate in conclusively determining the sequence of events “in cases of unlawful interference into civil aviation operations” such as sabotage or intentional pilot misconduct.

Pilot groups around the globe have strongly opposed the concept, setting the stage for what promises to be a testy debate over its potential benefits and downsides, including costs and risks of improper release of images.

A spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, North America’s largest pilot union, said that instead of “focusing on subjective interpretations of video recordings,” limited safety resources “should be focused on proactive safety programs that prevent accidents and enhance aviation safety by identifying potential safety risks and mitigations.”

The International Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s leading trade group, told the ICAO in a joint letter with pilot representatives last year that it opposed video recordings on the grounds that they could “lead an investigator down an incorrect path” if other, less obvious evidence was overlooked, an IATA spokesman said. IATA also expressed concerns about privacy protections, he said.

Debates over the ICAO’s proposal are expected to last a year or more, according to industry officials, as the agency responds to comments from countries, regional safety organizations, pilot representatives and other parties. The final resolution could vary significantly from the proposal, according to safety experts inside and outside ICAO.

Press officials for the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency didn’t have any immediate comment.

Cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders are embraced by the industry and pilot unions, though confidentiality issues sometimes crop up around the globe. All recorded flight data is supposed to be used solely for safety purposes, and ICAO’s latest language maintains that restriction.

ICAO’s Air Navigation Commission, which stopped short of proposing cockpit cameras several times before, this time agreed to embrace recordings that “would be less invasive,” according to agency documents. The images are more likely to remain confidential, according to one document, because they “would be less appealing to the media.”

Over the years, leaders of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, the umbrella group representing pilots globally, have been outspoken on the issue. In 2015, when efforts were stirring inside ICAO to revive the issue, Don Wykoff, then the association’s president, told members “we need to stop this” by seeking allies “in our home countries.” IFALPA’s current leadership didn’t have any immediate comment.

Proponents of video monitoring point to widespread reliance on recorded images to pinpoint procedural lapses in various settings, inside helicopters, locomotives, law-enforcement vehicles and operating rooms—along with the increasingly routine use of body cameras by police across the U.S.

“Legitimate privacy concerns are outweighed here by safety concerns,” said Ted Ellett, who also was a high-ranking U.S. aviation regulator and now is a Washington-based aviation partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells.

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