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FAA tests cameras to observe pilots, travelers in planes

Saturday, October 4, 2003

NEW ORLEANS -- The federal government is evaluating technology that would put video cameras on commercial flights so people on the ground could monitor pilots and passengers and get an early warning of hijackings or other trouble on board.

The Boeing Co. demonstrated a satellite system to Federal Aviation Administration officials in two test flights early this year, showing how images could be sent from a plane to the ground, said John Loynes, an FAA program manager in Washington. A Boeing 737, equipped with seven cameras, transmitted images of the cockpit and cabin.

Pilots have fiercely opposed efforts to put cameras in cockpits as an infringement of their authority. Passenger advocates have supported cameras as a way to prevent terrorist acts.

FAA officials stressed that the tests, conducted in January and February, were preliminary and said the agency's focus is purely on whether the technology would affect air safety. There will be further tests and other agencies could decide whether or how to use the technology, said Greg Martin, FAA chief spokesman.

"Our role is exclusively to evaluate the technology. The FAA is not interested in monitoring pilots," he said.

About 20 federal and Boeing workers, most of them engineers, were on board the round-trip flights from Seattle. Federal air marshals also tested Boeing technology that allows the use of hand-held devices to transmit video and to speak with and send data from the air to workers on the ground, Loynes said.

Screen-touch viewing

One camera showed the pilots from behind, one was in first class and the others showed the rest of the passenger area. Workers on the ground, at Boeing offices in Seattle and in McLean, Va., could choose which camera view to look at by touching a computer screen, said Joseph J. Tedino, a Boeing spokesman.

Loynes described the tests as successful, with a few glitches in which video images were briefly garbled.

"There were no insurmountable problems," he said.

The tests were part of Boeing's 2002 contract with the FAA to test various security technologies.

Boeing officials discussed the technology at a recent security conference in New Orleans. The city of Denver uses a similar video system to monitor part of its public transit system.

For more than a decade, the FAA has considered various plans to put video cameras in airplanes. In 2000, National Transportation Safety Board officials pushed a plan for cockpit cameras, saying they aid air crash investigators.

The proposal was dropped after stiff opposition from pilots, who were concerned that cameras could lead to a dilution of pilots' control over decisions made during flights. Pilots said workers on the ground could misinterpret video images and give orders based on incomplete information.

But advocates for air passengers say cameras would make air travel safer by preventing terrorism and hijackings.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said cameras would allow officials to assess the seriousness of a disturbance in the cabin. Officials on the ground could then talk about the problem with the flight crew members, who could learn about the situation without having to leave the cockpit.

"In the old days, one of the flight crew could come out and check things out, but they can't do that anymore," Stempler said. "These days, we want to keep the cockpit impenetrable to terrorists or hijackers."


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