Video of the week – I spy with my little eye in the sky - could airlines really monitor our activity at 38,000ft?

19 March, 2019

We have grown used to living in a society where 'big brother' is watching over us. From airports, train stations and our roads to our high streets and houses, more and more cameras are watching our daily lives. But, news last month that some airliners have cameras on seat-back screens was met with shock by travellers.

If we travel by train, coach and bus, we are already monitored by onboard cameras. In fact aircraft have had them for some time even if they are perhaps most obviously seen to maintain the safety of the cockpit rather than to monitor passengers. The headline grabbing issue here has been more about their intrusive location.

It all came to light last month when a passenger on a Singapore Airlines flight photographed the tiny camera while travelling onboard one of their newer aircraft and then tweeted about it. His post was picked up by multiple media channels and it was soon headline news.

Airlines have been quick to confirm that what the passenger spied was indeed a camera, but have all noted they are not currently active. That does raise the obvious question why the screen's OEM embedded them in entertainment systems in the first place?

People are slowly warming to benefits of facial recognition and biometrics in travel, but is its adoption at 38,000 feet perhaps a step too far? It is likely the cameras have been installed for future technological applications. Perhaps playing interactive games with fellow passengers, face time calls with friends, colleagues and loved ones on the ground, even completing pre-immigration checks.

What is clear is there is now a lot of attention around something that is not even active at this stage. It is not known just how many aircraft now have such equipment installed on their aircraft. Singapore Airlines has confirmed that over 80 of its 120-strong fleet have them, American Airlines reportedly has them in the premium economy cabins on over 80 Boeing 777 and Airbus A330-200 aircraft.

For now all the airlines that are known to have the cameras installed confirm they have never activated the cameras and have no plans to use them. But as more brand-new aircraft take to the sky with modern entertainment system then surely the question will no longer be not if, but when they will be activated.

The Blue Swan Daily spoke to passenger experience expert Dr Joe Leader to learn his thoughts on the subject. The CEO of APEX (Airline Passenger Experience Association) and IFSA (International Flight Services Association) says the cameras have been embedded as airlines are now "thinking ahead" and "learning lessons from the past and setting themselves up for the future".

LEARN MORE… you can now watch the full interview with Dr Joe Leader from the CAPA Global LCCs Summit in Singapore via the CAPA TV channel.