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NTSB Wants to Monitor Pilots’ Talk

Government investigators are making an unprecedented push to use "black box" voice recordings to routinely monitor pilots' conversations and make sure cockpit crews are focusing on their jobs.

The move represents the first time that workplace monitoring could extend into the nation's cockpits and has drawn intense fire from pilots' unions who say that the plan is intrusive. The black box recorders have until now only been used in accident investigation.

The recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) comes amid a string of serious distractions during flight, including the fatal crash near Buffalo after two pilots chit-chatted in the cockpit and two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew 100 miles past their destination because they were using their personal laptops.

"It is essential to understand what is going on in the cockpit if we are to achieve further reductions" in accident rates, NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman said in a written statement to USA TODAY.

The NTSB has no regulatory power but it has recommended the black box idea to the Federal Aviation Administration. The recommendation calls for airlines and unions to monitor the recordings as a way to watchdog the workplace.

Investigators say the effort is part of a broader trend to reduce misbehavior and inattention by transportation workers in the age of instant messaging and cellphones. But some worry that the proposal could undermine other safety efforts by sowing distrust among pilots.

"It's an intrusion on privacy," said Mike Michaelis, chairman of safety at the Allied Pilots Association, the American Airlines union. "It's the wrong way to go safety-wise."

The agency said that the recommendation isn't intended to violate privacy. It suggested that the recordings be scrutinized for safety trends. The reviews should be done anonymously and could not be used to punish individual pilots, the agency said.

"This is not a case of Big Brother spying on pilots," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt.

NTSB board members said their recommendation was prompted by the Feb. 12, 2009, crash near Buffalo that killed 50 people. The pilots' chit-chatting was a violation of federal regulations and came before they mishandled a warning and lost control.

Regional airlines endorsed the concept of using the cockpit voice recorder as an auditing tool after the Buffalo crash. Support has also come from powerful members of Congress.

"This is the next frontier of safety that we must not put off," Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., the chairman of the Transportation Committee, said at a recent hearing.

Pilots have been wary of the crash-hardened recorders since they were introduced in 1967. Currently, accident investigators are the only ones who listen to the recordings. The NTSB releases a transcript of the recording but never makes the recording itself public.

Capt. John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association union, said reviewing the recorders could make pilots uneasy about speaking up about safety issues in the cockpit.

Bill Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, said he would prefer to see other safety initiatives before cockpit recordings are monitored.

The recorders capture conversations and background noises in the cockpit. As of April 7, 2012, they must record the last two hours of a flight; previously, the devices only recorded 30 minutes.

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