(Bloomberg) -- Under sweeping bipartisan aviation legislation introduced Friday, a new eye in the sky might monitor US airline flights in the near future: crash-proof video recorders in cockpits.

After years of controversy and pushback by pilot unions, House leaders from both parties have opted to require video to monitor air crews’ actions to give accident investigators greater insights after accidents. 

The measure is contained in a 773-page bill setting US aviation policy for the next five years. The provisions are a consensus of both the Republicans who control the House and Democrats — and both sides are eager to pass the legislation soon. 

If passed, the provision would mark a sea change in how accident investigators approach crashes and would likely lead other nations to follow suit. The legislation also includes broad protections that unions have sought to prohibit the release of recordings to the public and bar their use for disciplinary action by carriers. 

Under the bill, airlines would have seven years to install the devices on their fleets, and the Federal Aviation Administration would have three years to establish requirements for the devices. The bill would also require upgraded cockpit sound recorders, extending the time they capture from two to 25 hours. Video devices would also record 25 hours under the legislation. 

The US National Transportation Safety Board has long sought video evidence after repeated cases in which the existing sound and data recordings in so-called black boxes — which are encased in protective covers that are actually colored orange — weren’t sufficient to determine what happened in crashes. 

For example, after a Boeing Co. 767 cargo jet carrying Amazon.com Inc. packages plunged into a marsh near Houston on Feb. 23, 2019, killing three, NTSB investigators surmised that a copilot had inadvertently added full power and became disoriented. 

But “several circumstances of this accident could not be conclusively determined,” investigators said in their report. They included actions of the captain and what the plane’s displays were showing the crew. 

“An image recorder with a properly placed flight deck camera system could have provided this valuable information, possibly enabling the identification of additional safety issues and the development of safety recommendations to prevent similar accidents,” the NTSB said at the time.

While current voice recorders have been a powerful investigative tool, pilots rarely explain what they’re doing during the chaotic moments leading to accidents, at times leaving investigators with more questions than answers.  

Some manufacturers already make video recorders and they have proven useful in investigations. They are generally located behind crews’ heads and provide a view of instruments and what pilots are doing with their hands, without showing faces or other personal information.


©2023 Bloomberg L.P.