COMMENTARY | The media is in a frenzy over the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Was it hijacked? Did it crash into the ocean? Did the captain or copilot take over the flight? According to CNN, the latest in a long string of theories is that the flight may have landed on a remote island chain in the Indian Ocean, based on data that the airliner’s engines were still operating hours after communications from the cockpit ceased and that the big jet was unexpectedly changing course. As the investigation into the vanishing of Flight 370 continues many commentators have questioned why, in 2014, an expensive airliner could have simply gone missing.
With today’s modern technology, why not simply have all cockpit data, especially audio, sent straight to computer servers and recorded? This would provide a real-time record of what flight crews were doing or experiencing. Pilots could be heard snoozing on the job, arguing, struggling with equipment, or behaving strangely, alerting airlines to the possibility that their ultra-expensive jets, and the safety of hundreds of passengers, were in jeopardy. Or, at the very least, if something bad did happen investigators wouldn’t have to comb the ocean for a black box – they could pull up the audio files from the flight.
Sure, this technology might be expensive up front, but could save airlines millions by reducing the number of pilot-related accidents. Incompetent or unprofessional pilots could be detected early based on their cockpit audio and confusing or ineffective equipment or flight protocols could be discovered by hearing pilots’ confusion or frustration. Constantly-recorded cockpit audio could help researchers and engineers discover ways to improve commercial flight and pilot training.
Pilots would likely chafe at the notion of being constantly recorded on the job but, given the enormity of their tasks, such surveillance is justified, especially if commonsense limits protecting pilots from abusive termination policies are implemented. To protect pilots, FAA regulations should limit the use of in-cockpit audio recordings for employment purposes and should only allow them to be used retroactively, as part of investigations into incidents, as part of independent flight research where pilot anonymity is protected, or as part of probationary pilot training and performance review.
Though we want to promote safety and professionalism in the air, we don’t want good pilots to be fired or demoted for uttering untoward language occasionally, enjoying a joke with colleagues, or speaking heatedly during times of stress and inclement conditions.
With many other professions dealing with increased digital oversight, ranging from police officers and their in-dash cameras, office workers and Internet tracking software, and teachers constantly at risk of being recorded by students, pilots should expect, and accept, greater oversight in the cockpit.