Photo: Christian Heinz/Shutterstock

Your Airplane Cabin May Have More Cameras Than You Expect

Airports + Flying
by Alex Bresler Apr 22, 2024

Near-constant video surveillance is a fact of the modern world. Smartphones, home security cameras, dash cams, CCTV — if you’re in public, you’re probably being filmed. The question, then, is why don’t we see more cameras on airplanes?

The short answer is that they’re there.

Most travelers probably know that airplanes have exterior cameras to help pilots navigate. On many flights, these cameras also allow passengers to watch takeoffs, landings, and live feeds via their in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems. But what about cameras inside of airplane cabins?

The short answer, again, is that they’re there. You just might not be noticing them.

In 2002, JetBlue became the first US airline to get Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to install internal surveillance cameras. These cameras direct live, unrecorded footage to the cockpit to help pilots and crew monitor the goings-on of their cabins.

Many aircraft position cameras directly outside of cockpits to let pilots know who might be approaching, as well as areas of the cabin that are difficult for cabin crew to monitor from their jump seats. Internal cameras are now ubiquitous on both domestic and international flights.

Though many travelers are still unaware of the prevalence of internal cameras in aircraft, some fliers have caught on — and they’re not always happy about it.

On a FlyerTalk message board from 2016, one traveler expressed “shock” at finding a bulkhead camera in the first-class cabin of an Airbus A380 plane.

The reactions from other commenters were split: some commenters shared privacy concerns while others noted that they have no such expectation of privacy on public transport.

In light of increasing reports of passenger misconduct on flights, from unruly or inebriated passengers to attempts to open exit doors, the idea of seeing surveillance equipment on airplanes is less than surprising. Some fliers have theorized that interior cameras also explain why cabin crew are so readily able to anticipate the needs of their first-class passengers.

Others, such as the FlyerTalk poster cited above, believe that cameras are a particular violation for premium fliers, whether they choose to take advantage of a roomy suite to change clothes mid-flight or conduct sensitive business on their laptops.

There’s bad news for travelers who think that cameras in airplane cabins are cause for concern: we may soon be seeing even more of them.

In 2019, CNN reported that Airbus was planning to install cameras outside lavatories. Ingo Wuggetzer, then Vice President of Marketing at Airbus, told CNN that these cameras would help cabin crew manage long bathroom lines, inventory bathroom products, and stay apprised of passengers who spend an inordinate amount of time in the lavatory in case they need assistance. He also noted that these cameras would be visible to passengers, designed to obscure people’s faces, and not be used for any tracking purposes.

If you fall into the camp that views aircraft surveillance as a privacy invasion, there’s another type of camera you may want to look out for on airplanes: seatback cameras.

In the post above from 2019, X user Vitaly Kamluk questioned Singapore Airlines about the purpose of the “interesting sensor” he noticed “looking” at him from his seatback entertainment system. Singapore Airlines confirmed that “the cameras are in selected Business, Premium Economy, and Economy Class” but noted that “they have been permanently disabled on our aircraft” with “no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras.”

After the image went viral, Buzzfeed reported that another flier saw a similar camera embedded in an IFE aboard a Boeing 777 operated by American Airlines. American Airlines responded, echoing Singapore Airlines’ statement, as have airlines including Qantas and Emirates after IFE cameras became a topic of online conversation.

Turns out, it’s common for airlines to install IFE with cameras pre-installed in the hardware. Panasonic Avionics manufactures IFE for Singapore Airlines, for example.

Following outcry from fliers, CNN reported that a newer model of Panasonic’s IFE, showcased at the 2022 Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Germany, features “an optional built-in camera with a sliding privacy cover” as well as embedded microphones for potential voice-command use.

Despite modifications such as privacy covers that might allow air travelers to feel more secure in the fact that IFE cameras aren’t activated, manufacturers such as Panasonic Avionics show no signs of slowing down when it comes to incorporating camera technology into seatback entertainment systems. The aim is to put the technology in place now in the event that airlines want to roll out features such as seat-to-seat calling in the future.

Still, some travelers have expressed concerns that this same technology gives airlines the ability to spy on passengers via seatback cameras. For now, to quote Singapore Airlines, airlines insist that they have “no plans to enable or develop any features using the cameras” — the cameras themselves, however, appear to be here to stay, and what happens with them in the future is yet to be seen.

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