Cameras on planes: Are airlines secretly spying on their passengers with hidden cameras?

Cathay Pacific recently warned its passengers that their right to privacy is not what it once was. In an update to its privacy policy published at the end of July, 2019, the update says the airline will capture and retain information relating to "your use of our inflight entertainment system and inflight connectivity, your images captured via CCTV in our airport lounges and aircraft, your use of our cargo services including details of the cargo shipments, and your purchase of our duty free products and branded items."

That's a comprehensive watchlist. You can assume therefore that when you fly with Cathay Pacific, the airline could be watching you at the check-in desk, on the aircraft and also if you happen to be in one of their lounges.

Onboard the aircraft, Cathay Pacific uses CCTV cameras to capture what's happening in the cabin. Although some airlines have the ability to monitor passengers via a lens installed in the seatback video screens, Cathay Pacific says it's not doing that. And just in case you're wondering, "There are no CCTV cameras installed in the lavatories."

Cathay Pacific says it is doing this "For the purposes of improving our products and services for the benefit of our customers generally, including to ensure that our websites and web pages (including social media pages) function correctly and in accordance with your preferences and circumstances."

If Cathay Pacific wants to gauge whether its performance is up to scratch, how about asking me via a survey? And how exactly does your watching me lead to an improvement of your products and services? That's none of Cathay's business.

Who sees your data?

Even more worrying is the long list of third parties to whom Cathay Pacific is prepared to disclose your personal data. That includes other airlines, hotel partners, travel agents and travel operators, partner loyalty programmes, corporate or government clients and government and regulatory bodies. Are you comfortable having all the data that Cathay Pacific collects – passport information, credit card details just for starters – shared with travel agents, travel operators and the Government of the Peoples' Republic of China?

While it maintains the right to retain your personal data as long as it believes necessary, the airline also says "At Cathay Pacific, we are committed to protecting your personal data and your privacy." Facts tell a different story. In October 2018 the airline fessed up to a major data breach in which hackers stole the passport numbers and credit card information of up to 9.4 million passengers. With the changes announced in Cathay's privacy update, your image and your movements could be part of that data package.

Smile… you're being watched

Cameras have been a game changer in the airline industry. For years now passengers have been using their smartphone cameras to collect evidence when things go awry. When United Airlines called security staff to haul Dr David Dao out of his assigned seat to make way for a crew member, leaving the doctor with a broken nose and shattered teeth, dragging him unconscious and bloody down the aisle, the entire event was captured on passengers' phone cameras and posted to social media.


After United's CEO initially described it as a "passenger re-accommodation" incident, and blamed the victim, it only stoked the fires of general outrage. The airline backtracked swiftly and less than three weeks after the incident the airline reached a confidential settlement with Dao.

See also:  Doctor dragged screaming from United Airlines flight breaks silence​​

The power in your pocket

While Dao's case was an extreme example, cameras have been used to document baggage handlers flinging cases from aircraft onto baggage carts, a flight attendant wrenching a stroller from a mother with an infant in her arms and passengers with anger management issues. There have also been cases in which passengers have clearly sought to blackmail an airline via social media.

Is it fair? In a big, complicated enterprise like an airline with thousands of employees who perform myriad functions, it is not too surprising that they sometimes fall short. In the airline cabin passengers are often over eager to reach for their phones when – rightly or wrongly – they feel they've been short changed. It could be that a phone-toting empowerment culture has led to an adversarial relationship between passengers and flight crew trying to do their job.

While the use of video evidence ensures accountability, "taking back the skies" can become a tool for those prepared to twist the facts and tell a sad story on social media to suit their own ends. Which could mean holding the airline hostage with the ultimate aim of a grovelling apology followed by financial compensation.

Suppose a passenger has been allocated to an exit row seat and a flight attendant decides they shouldn't be there since a physical impairment would make it difficult for them to assist other passengers in an emergency. Passenger protests, whips out their phone and hits "record", then says "This is discrimination and I'm going to post this video to Facebook and every other social media site."

What's the FA to do? Stand their ground and insist and it can swell into a public relations disaster for the airline. Defer and they're breaching airline regulations.

Bodycam in the cabin

Aurigny, a small regional airline in the UK.

Aurigny, a small regional airline in the UK. Photo: Alamy

Based in the UK's Channel Islands, Aurigny is a small regional carrier but back in 2017 it achieved a world record – the first airline to give its flight attendants body cameras. According to Dave Cox, Aurigny's ground operations manager, "A vast majority of our passengers are very friendly, polite, respectful, and often know our staff personally. However… you may occasionally encounter individuals who can be rude, aggressive and abusive to our staff."

While that description might apply on airlines that regularly haul passengers out to party on Ibiza or hen's parties headed for Bali, the fact that a small, regional airline operating out of an island known chiefly for golf and castles feels it necessary to issue bodycams is surprising.

Approached at the time for comment, the major US carriers said they had no plans to follow suit. While passengers feel free to haul out their phones and start filming when things turn ugly, when those same passengers know that a flight attendant is doing the same via their bodycam it's probably not going to make for a calmer flight.

See also: Smile: Some airlines have cameras on seat-back screens

See also: Air Canada baggage handlers toss luggage from platform in video