March 30, 2002 -- Hidden cameras watch people in stores, at the office, even on the street. Now, they'll be keeping an eye on airline passengers as well.
JetBlue Airways is the first U.S. carrier to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to install video cameras on all its airplanes.
JetBlue is a successful start-up carrier based at New York's John F. International Kennedy airport. Soon after the Sept. 11 hijackings, the airline installed bullet-proof cockpit doors on all its planes. And it was the first carrier to match all luggage to passengers.
The airline has outfitted one plane with the video surveillance system, and plans to have its 23 other jets equipped with the miniature cameras within the next few months.
Flight attendant Melinda Rucker believes the cameras will act as a deterrent. She says when passengers "know that that camera is going to be here, they are going to think twice before they try something."
The cameras are positioned to cover the entire cabin. Some are visible, others are hidden so they cannot be tampered with. The views from the cameras are sent to the cockpit, where they can be seen on two monitors — one for each pilot. The crew can select a camera angle to view, or can set up the monitor to scroll through the camera shots one after another.
Pilots say this will be a big help, especially because they are no longer able to come out of the locked cockpit if there is a disturbance in the back of the plane. They will now be able to gauge how serious the incident is by looking at their video monitors.
"If there was a disturbance back there, we would be able to monitor the situation and land as soon as possible," says Capt. Lanny McAndrew, JetBlue's chief pilot.
Privacy Groups, Passengers Support — With Limitations
The company is flying into uncharted territory. There are no industry or government standards on the use and placement of cameras on plane. Privacy rights groups say they are not opposed to cameras on airplanes, but that there must be limits.
"It should be a camera that is visible, the passengers should be informed, there should be no recording of conversation," says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
JetBlue says it will make an announcement at the beginning of a flight that the cameras are on board. There is no sound. JetBlue will not record the video, although it is possible to do so. But some of the cameras are hidden, so they cannot be tampered with.
Company CEO David Neeleman says they are not out to spy. "The focus is on the cabin and making sure it's safe," he explains. "And this is a great way to make sure it is."
There will be no cameras in the restroom, even thought from a security standpoint that would be a smart place to have them.
"The security side is going to say, that's where we really need to know what people are doing, and most people are going to think, my God, do I really want to go to the restroom on an airplane if I'm going to be observed?" says Rotenberg.
JetBlue passengers say they have no objection to the cameras in the cabin.
Dick Czjaka was on a flight to Buffalo to visit his family. "Security is the most important thing. If you want privacy go lock yourself up in a room."
Long Island resident Amanda Oliveri was taking a flight to New Orleans. She said she was no problem with the cameras. "As long as I feel secure. I feel that … an inconvenience is worth it to know that you are on a plane and it's safe."
It'll Cost You
For JetBlue, installing the cameras was easy. The airline is the first to offer satellite TV onboard — each seat has its own TV screen. The company that put that system in, LiveTV, simply ran the cameras through the same video server in the belly of the plane and then up to the cockpit.
But LiveTV insists any plane can easily be wired for the cameras, at a cost of about $50,000 a jet. The company says it has at least 6 major carriers considering the idea. Delta Airlines tested an on-board video system and is now deciding whether it wants to move forward with cameras on planes. United says it is seriously looking at putting a camera focused on the area just outside the cockpit and is talking to a number of companies.
"With the cameras it is all visual and it's all there," says Glenn Latta, the executive vice president with LiveTV. "So if there is a noise in the back of the cabin, for example, the pilot can immediately look at the screen and tell if that someone who dropped a bag of ice for example or if there's an incident that he needs to take action on. "
JetBlue Airways is also using wireless transmission to send the picture from the cameras to a monitor at its operations center at Kennedy airport when the plane is on the ground. This way the airline can watch who is on the planes and what they are doing when the jets are being serviced. The airline says the video system allows them to offer better security both on the ground and in the air.
ABCNEWS' Dennis Powell contributed to this report.