Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

It could be that few people will notice.

But if you're a company that's desperately trying to appear a little better than many customers currently see you, every little step toward pleasing those customers constitutes a positive effort.

You might be touched, therefore, to hear that United Airlines is taking one small pace toward considering its customers' feelings.

In February, an observant Singapore Airlines passenger noticed his inflight entertainment system came with an added extra.

A camera pointed straight at him.

Vitaly Kamluk, who happens to be a cybersecurity expert, was a touch perplexed and did the natural thing perplexed people do. 

He posted a picture on Twitter.

This created an equally natural reaction. People were afraid they were being spied on.

Some might think that many airlines aren't organized enough to spy efficiently.

Then again, the recent reaction of one passenger to JetBlue's new facial recognition system suggests that once they discover they're being technologically surveilled, many humans don't like it.

Which doesn't, of course, stop them whipping out their phones and taking embarrassing pictures of random strangers.

Still, once Kamluk's picture wafted into the web's fine ether, politicians began to ask questions.  

After all, these inflight entertainment systems are in use on many airlines.

Now, United has reacted. First noticed by BuzzFeed News, the cameras have been covered up.

Indeed, a United spokeswoman told me: 

As with many other airlines, some of our premium seats have in-flight entertainment systems that came with cameras installed by the manufacturer. None of these cameras were ever activated and we had no plans to use them in the future, however we took the additional step to cover the cameras. The cameras are a standard feature that manufacturers of the system included for possible future purposes such as video conferencing.

Purposes such as video conferencing.

And, perhaps, drier minds might suggest, purposes such as capturing evidence in case of passenger misbehavior.

Still, it's not as if the furor has kept going without pause. If anything, the issue had begun to slip by.

Yet United decided to do the surprisingly sensible thing anyway. 

Which suggests a certain change of focus at the airline from the one previously observed.

I contacted Delta and American Airlines to ask for their stance on these cameras. 

Delta, a company many look up to for its superior customer service, told me it had already declared the cameras had never been functional.

However, an airlines spokesman told me: 

As a visible way to reassure customers, we added covers.

American, on the other hand, didn't go all the way.

An airline spokesperson told me:

While these cameras are present on some American Airlines in-flight entertainment systems as delivered from the manufacturer, they have never been activated and American is not considering using them.

But no cover-up, it seems, to reassure passengers additionally. Just a trust us.

Perhaps covering the cameras costs money.

The airline says it's now reviewing its position.

A wider question that might be asked is why planes aren't equipped more generally with an array of cameras.

After all, they're places of business and most businesses these days have some sort of surveillance of customers built in.

I made a couple of discreet inquiries and the answer was, of course, quite tantalizing.

An airline insider told me: "You really think employees want to be filmed at work?"

Well, quite. They don't even like passengers doing that.

Yes, that was United. The old United, of course.

Published on: Apr 27, 2019
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