Exposed: The Fierce Battle Over Cockpit Privacy – Unveiling Pilot Union Resistance to Key Safety Reforms

Last January an American Airlines crew headed to London taxied on the wrong runway as a Delta 737 began its take off roll. This was nearly a disaster of epic proportions, as the American jet crossed right in front of Delta, and the Delta plane hit the brakes.

The Delta flight stopped less than 1000 feet from where it would have intersected with American’s plane. The transatlantic 777 didn’t follow air traffic control instructions.

The incident wasn’t immediately reported to the airline. The pilots decided to continue flying to London, despite being almost certainly shaken by what had (almost) happened. And we’ll never really know what was going on in the cockpit, because the pilots continued flying and the voice recording was written over. In fact there is speculation that the pilots decided to continue to London so that the recording of what happened would be written over.

Following the recent Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 incident, the NTSB determined that the cockpit voice recorder, in place to help review aviation incidents and make flying safer, had already been recorded over. Two hours of recording time isn’t enough when it takes awhile to recover a ‘black box’. That’s why the FAA is considering a rule to require 25 hours of recording time as is standard already in Europe.

But pilot unions are fighting this. If they want to maintain the illusion that their primary concern is safety they must drop their opposition.

Pilot unions regularly fight for rules that don’t benefit safety, but use the rhetoric of safety to create barriers to entry into the profession – limiting the supply of pilots, increasing their bargaining leverage and driving up wages. For instance,

  • Age 65 retirement. Pilots already have to get medical certification to fly. Age 65 retirement is meant to ‘age out’ pilots and therefore limit supply.
  • 1500 hours of flying for a commercial license. These repetitive touch and gos from the same airport don’t mimic real world conditions, or usually even bad weather flying. 500 hours can be racked up in a hot air balloon. That balloon can even be tethered. It’s just about lengthening the time it takes to become a pilot, and raising the cost. Airlines have to train the bad habits out of pilots that they pick up in their question for hours.

By wrapping themselves in the mantle of safety they can push special interest legislation. But here they threaten to lay bare the truth, that pilot unions are interested in their own compensation over safety.

Though the deadline for public comments isn’t until February 2, we’re already seeing pilots and unions file their opposition to longer cockpit voice recording.

  • This is an investigative tool to improve air travel safety for all, understanding what rules and procedures are necessary or uncovering what may have caused a flight irregularity.

  • None of the arguments against it are based on safety. They’re either going to be based on cost to an airline, or personal preferences for pilots.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, representing Atlas Air pilots, makes clear why they’re objecting to 25 hour cockpit voice recordings.

  • They claim that pilots have an expectation of privacy in the cockpit.
  • They believe that pilots ‘wouldn’t have agreed’ to any recording in the first place (as though it was their decision right) had they known these recordings would ever be made public.
  • Pilots might break airline rules, and voice recording would help prove their guilt
  • In a criminal matter, the FBI isn’t restricted in how it can use recording (umm… good?)

Stretching to make this about safety, the union says that crew in the cockpit might not trust each other if they’re being recorded. They’d chit chat less, imposing fewer war stories and other exploits upon their colleagues, and thus might not establish ‘rapport’.

They contend that rulemaking to improve safety is unnecessary, and since there are so few fatal accidents recordings would mostly be used to investigate “relatively minor incidents.” But it’s precisely those minor issues that would be investigated before we get unlucky and they replicate as something more dangerous. Seconds off and hundreds of people would have died when that American Airlines 777 pulled out in front of a Delta 737 taking off at JFK.

To the pilot union, their members’ interests trump safety,

This evolution in usage raises significant concerns about the balance between the benefits of marginal safety increases and the substantial intrusion into pilots’ rights to privacy in their workplace.

And they want cockpit voice recordings to be used only “where direct crew accounts are not available.” Already believe what a pilot says not the recording.

I have to think the lack of a cockpit voice recording in an incident as significant as the Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 – during the time in which the FAA is taking public comment on whether or not to require a longer period of recording before the device writes over itself – will make the move to 25 hours of recording a foregone conclusion.

Pilot unions that haven’t yet commented have an opportunity to stand aside, to avoid compromising their longer-run objective of appearing to side with safety for personal gain, and allow this rule to proceed.

If interested, members of the public can comment on the proposed rule.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. BS reasons to minimize accountability, no different from when police unions pushed back on body cams.

    Documentation is critical for safety, everyone knows it. They just don’t want their mistakes caught.

  2. Gary is a clueless media keyboard tycoon… no an aviation expert.

    *65 is FINE… I have flown with retired guys Part 91….65 is the correct general age, you have to stop somewhere. Unions are also made up of …pilots.

    *Pilots may break airline rules and the voice recording would help avoid guilt? CLUELESS comment. airlines cannot take any action on pilots for what is said on the voice recorder.

  3. Where in the CFR is the balloon part covered for ATP? I’d love to reference that for others who won’t believe it.

  4. What’s new, rich guys wanting to hide their bad behavior. Sound like anyone we know that’s got a lot of court cases coming up.

  5. @SMR – You write “CLUELESS comment. airlines cannot take any action on pilots for what is said on the voice recorder.”

    This is LITERALLY THE ARGUMENT THAT A PILOT UNION IS MAKING and I am simply citing it.

    “*65 is FINE… 65 is the correct general age, you have to stop somewhere. ”

    This is your preference, great, but why not defer to medical science instead of union lobbying?

  6. I love that Gary who has zero knowledge on being a pilot proposes rules to impose on them. Based on what Gary? Expertise as a passenger , please stick to FF miles comments. No education in the field , no actual work as a pilot but you did stay in a holiday inn express last month.

    As far as others saying recordings who cares what the pilots want , there are good reasons why they don’t want recordings. Years ago companies listened to the recordings for industrial relations reasons and worse years ago recordings of pilots last words and crash sounds were released until the laws changed, the next step after getting longer audio recordings will be video recordings, I do not want the possibility of my accidental death being played on CNN for my family to see and neither would you, until there is a 100% guaranteed situation for that provision I will oppose any loosening of the rules.

  7. How ironic.

    Every airline makes changes, many that reduce customer service and the passenger experience, all in the name of safety, which is fine. Now we have a situation where a change should be made in the name of safety and the unions are squawking. Amazing.

    While someone is “on the clock” and working for an employer, there really isn’t any privacy. Companies monitor people and their production in many ways, and extending the cockpit voice recording time is not an invasion of privacy, but a much-needed change to ensure the future of airline safety.

    One thing the airline industry has done well over the years is learned from accidents and incidents to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future, which has made flying incredibly safe. I hope this doesn’t change moving forward.

  8. @gary leff

    Medical science can’t provide a really good assessment of decreased ability with age because aviation can’t define what are the required ability. Slow thinking? Worse judgment?

  9. I love when the pilot trolls come out. “I love that Gary who has zero knowledge on being a pilot proposes rules to impose on them.” What rules have I proposed? The FAA has proposed a rule for retaining cockpit voice recordings. There’s little logical reason to object from a public policy standpoint. Pilots do not like it personally. And union lobbying on this issue underscores how pilot unions aren’t primarily concerned for safety as they claim. That’s all.

    Now, the 1500 hour rule is stupid. You do not need to be a commercial pilot to see that the primary impact is to make it costlier and more time consuming to become one, and that pilot unions pushed for it in order to increase bargaining leverage. And it worked!

  10. It used to be that an airline pilot faced mandatory retirement at age 60, an arbitrary decision by the FAA that took decades to reverse. IMO 65 is also unnecessary, if a person is physically and mentally able to do the work. Anyway, the airline pilot certificate requirements are, with a few exceptions:

    1,500 hours, including 500 hours of cross-country time, 100 hours of night time, 50 hours in the class of airplane for the rating, 75 hours of instrument time, and 250 hours of time as pilot in command

    Yes, a balloon could qualify as fight time, though that would get expensive fast. And one manual for the sport says you can’t log tethered time either. But the point is that someone with a lot of experience in lighter than air, floats, gyrocopter, sailplane, etc. aviation may have have very good skills in those areas but they don’t necessary translate to the rigorous training and frequent check rides required for those those operating passenger jets. So this is something of a false argument, though there are good reasons why an arbitrary 1500 hours may be unnecessary too.

  11. Gary,
    You seem to be very concerned about safety and medical science. Ok, let’s run with that.

    Every year in the USA, for decades on end, over 100,000 people die from medical errors. Where is the talk of drug and alcohol testing for doctors and nurses? Mandatory MD/DO retirement age? No discussion of the AMA keeping Dr. numbers controlled to drive wages up?

    Those are real people dying, every day, tens of thousand every year. The 25 hour voice recorder tape argument is about projected safety gains. Last commercial airline fatal accident: 2009. Last medical death from an error: statistically it was before you had breakfast today.

  12. Juan Browne, the YouTuber AA 777 pilot, has made a point to call out crashes in light twins by hour-building pilots who inadvertently get into the “test-pilot” range of performance envelopes, noting that once candidates are hired, the scary stuff is done in the simulator.

  13. What would the cockpit voice recorder have to do with a plug door coming off in the cabin?

    If the pilots do not want to be recorded, I am okay with that. Remember the pilot’s safety and passenger’s safety incentives are aligned.

  14. In 2024, we shouldn’t even have flight data and voice recording being done on a physical unit contained on the aircraft. Beam the info into a cloud storage unit somewhere that can be accessed by the NTSB and FAA or relevant authorities only in the event of an incident. Then search teams won’t have to locate the “black boxes” after a crash, especially if the plane goes down in the ocean or other hard to reach area – or, as in the case of Malaysian 370, can’t even be located at all!

  15. @walter Unless you are the top leadership at the FAA or a member of Congress, you do not set or influence federal regulations , I guarantee the pilots have more power via lobbyists than someone who flies a few times a year as a passenger.

    @Gary, you are proposing items to change via your blog , Age 65, recorders , 1500 hours, items. We know you have very little knowledge or education of pilot careers. It would be like me making statements about FF programs I know they exist but really don’t know the details or intricacies of the program. So no you are not qualified to be an expert about those subjects as it relates to pilots.

  16. @30WEST..Gary is an excellent writer when it comes to FF programs and flying as a passenger and to me comes across as eager without knowledge when he posts about anything else.

  17. Everything on the recorders should be encrypted at the highest practical level of encryption, then transmitted and recorded. The encryption keys should be saved in a neutral country that can withstand the pressures and hacking of many countries. Then if an airplane had a problem, agreement would be necessary before the encryption keys are released to the appropriate organizations. Maybe Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have been found with such rules.

  18. Here’s an idea. The FAA just does the right thing and changes the rule. It ain’t hard. While I’m not an aviation expert I’ve spent decades dealing with arbitrary regulations passed by bureaucrats that didn’t have any potential impact on safety. The incident with the AA jet seems to be enough reason for a rule change. My question is what exactly are pilots doing in the cockpit that they don’t want a record of exactly?

  19. Union shills aren’t even trying to make sense:

    “What would the cockpit voice recorder have to do with a plug door coming off in the cabin?”

    Well, the NTSB seems to have wanted it… and maybe it’s good to know what warnings did or did not go off, and when?

    What would the cockpit voice recorder have to do with a plug door coming off in the cabin?

    And then this gem:

    “If the pilots do not want to be recorded, I am okay with that. Remember the pilot’s safety and passenger’s safety incentives are aligned.”

    Then why do we have rules on pilots drinking, or being high? No neef, says the union troll – their interests are aligned with those of the passengers.

    Unions are always shameless in their pursuit of money and power. It’s never about fairness, or safety. Always about power and money for their greedy members. Every time.


  20. The recent incidents involving cockpit privacy highlight a critical safety concern, such as the near miss between American and Delta planes. The FAA’s proposal to extend cockpit voice recording from 2 to 25 hours aims to enhance aviation safety, but pilot unions oppose it. Unions argue for privacy and trust issues, but their resistance raises questions about prioritizing personal interests over safety. The proposed rule is a crucial tool for investigating and preventing flight irregularities. As public comments are invited until February 2, it’s essential for pilot unions to reconsider their stance for the greater good of air travel safety.

  21. GarySTL, it’s better technology, not better pilots, that’s responsible for the “safety gains.” Thank the engineers. And let’s not compare pilots to doctors. That’s HS degree vs 12 years college+med school+residency

  22. Non Flight Instructor/Commercial/ATP pilots commenting here just don’t know how little they just don’t know. That being said I will agree that there is no longer any reason for a FDR (black box) when data links have proven to be reliable and are currently in use by carriers to monitor the aircraft.

  23. What a sad sack of $&:t it takes to write all this garbage with such passion.

    What good would a CVR do when a door falls off in flight because of faulty fuselage production???

    Take your petty rants over to the Boeing and Spirit Aerosystems company hotlines and leave blue collar workers out of it. Those companies makes billions to produce unairworthy equipment and your first response is to take it out on the pilots? Get a life.

  24. . What good would a CVR do when a door falls off in-flight because of faulty fuselage production??? This has nothing to do with the flight deck.

    Take your petty rants over to the Boeing and Spirit Aerosystems company hotlines and leave blue collar workers out of it. Those companies makes billions to produce unairworthy equipment and your first response is to take it out on the pilots? Get a life.

  25. Pilots are mostly maga idiots, I dealt with them for years as a AA line maintenance mechanic.
    Any moron with enough money can get a ATP in 18 months.
    Comparing themselves to doctors, a very old joke.

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