UA Is Covering Up Seatback Webcams That No One Seems To Want

Bruce Parkinson, Open Jaw

United Airlines has begun physically covering built-in webcams on in-flight entertainment devices following privacy concerns.

But the question remains – why would seatback devices have cameras looking at passengers in the first place? 

The screens, The Verge reports, which are essentially tablets provided to United by the aviation equipment division of Panasonic, are said to come with built-in webcams by default, with Panasonic executives claiming the cameras could one day provide improved entertainment features like seat-to-seat video calling (really?) and even gaming. 

United claims it did not specially order its screens with webcams. 

“As with many other airlines, some of our premium seats have in-flight entertainment systems that came with cameras installed by the manufacturer. All cameras have since been covered, which were never activated and that we have no plans to use in the future,” a United spokesperson told BuzzFeed.

OK, but aside from not specifically ordering them, did UA and other airlines not look closely at the product before they purchased it? That little round lens might have been a giveaway.

The privacy controversy first emerged earlier this year when some passengers began noticing webcams on seatback screens. The initial outcry was over Singapore Airlines’ inclusion of the webcam-equipped screens without informing passengers and without disclosing whether the webcams were active. 

However, it was soon discovered that Panasonic Avionics, a leading supplier of in-flight entertainment systems, has also been providing U.S. airlines, including AA and UA, with similar webcam-equipped screens.

The report states the airline will continue to cover the webcams in all future installations of its premium seating options, which come with the Panasonic screens already built into the seatback. 

A number of airlines responded in the immediate aftermath by claiming they never ordered screens with webcams. American said it had disabled the webcams and says it has no plans to ever use them. 

Lisa Connell, Delta’s general manager of onboard product, said at the time, “A limited number of Delta’s in-flight entertainment screens have cameras, and in those cases they were included by the manufacturer and not a feature we ordered. The cameras are not functional and we have no plans to install the necessary software to use them.” 

It’s not clear why Panasonic has decided to build screens with built-in webcams when none of its suppliers seem to want them and passengers seem upset by their very presence. The company was not immediately available for comment. 

Bruce Parkinson

Bruce Parkinson Editor-in-Chief

An observer and analyst of the Canadian and international travel industries for over 25 years, Bruce uses the pre-dawn hours to prepare a daily news and information package to keep industry members up to date.

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