United and Delta Cover Their Seatback Cameras in Bid to Stop Freaking You Out

Economy class seating is shown on a new United Airlines Boeing 787-9 undergoing final configuration and maintenance work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.
Economy class seating is shown on a new United Airlines Boeing 787-9 undergoing final configuration and maintenance work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.
Photo: Ted S. Warren (AP)

Evidently registering that no one wants to be stared down by a camera for the entirety of their flight, United and Delta are now covering the tiny in-unit cameras in the back-of-seat entertainment units on their planes. American Airlines may be considering a similar move.

BuzzFeed News last week reported on the small, black stickers that now cover these cameras on United’s planes, adding that the airline “will continue to cover the cameras as it adds premium seats on additional aircraft,” per a spokesperson for the carrier. A photo of the sticker was snapped by Sri Ray, a former BuzzFeed site reliability engineer.

Indeed, the cameras have been seen on the entertainment units of several carriers, though all have said that the cameras were not operational. A spokesperson for United Airlines told Gizmodo in a statement on Monday that the cameras on its units, which it says are only found on United Premium Plus seatbacks, “are a standard feature that manufacturers of the system included for possible future purposes such as video conferencing.”


“As with many other airlines, some of our premium seats have in-flight entertainment systems that came with cameras installed by the manufacturer,” the spokesperson said. “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.”

Likewise, a Delta Air Lines spokesperson confirmed to Gizmodo that it too is now covering the cameras.

“A limited number of Delta in-flight entertainment screens have non-functional cameras, included by the manufacturer,” the spokesperson said by email. “Though Delta does not have plans to install the necessary software to use them, we have added covers as a visible way to reassure customers.”

American Airlines told Gizmodo in a statement that it is “reviewing” the situation, emphasizing (as other carriers did) that the in-unit cameras on its own planes “have never been activated and American is not considering using them.”


A minor uproar sparked up around the cameras after a passenger aboard a Singapore Air flight asked the airline in a February tweet to explain “how it is used.” BuzzFeed News reported later that month that United and Delta planes also have the camera-equipped in-flight devices.


A spokesperson for Panasonic Avionics Corporation, which makes the entertainment units used by United and Delta, did not immediately return a request for comment about the covers being used by the carriers. However, a spokesperson for Panasonic told BuzzFeed News in February that it would “never activate any feature or functionality within an IFE system without explicit direction from an airline customer.”

These in-flight cameras are the just latest example of airlines introducing tech—or in this case potential tech—and failing to properly communicate to their customers how or why it’s there. Another recent example is the JetBlue Airways face recognition fiasco, which, as Gizmodo reported last week, is not limited to JetBlue and is already being used at more than a dozen airports across the country.


Like both Delta and United noted in their statements, the sticker-over-camera system—suggested by a number of Twitter users back in February—is really just a gesture to ensure their customers that they aren’t being monitored. It is annoying, however, that they didn’t do more to curb suspicion about them right out of the gate, perhaps by letting their customers know that they weren’t operational or communicating what their purpose was, to begin with. But if stickers do the job for peace of mind, then hey, I get it.

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I mean, what the hell is Panasonic thinking with those cameras anyways? How many customers have asked for them to be turned on (I’m assuming for videochat purposes?)

I get that the camera modules are probably very cheap (on the order of $2-3, out of the thousands of dollars that an airline seat costs), but it still strikes me as a dumb waste, especially considering that there isn’t a clear use case anyways (I’ve only seen someone using the “chat” system on an IFE once.)  Frankly, I’ve yet to see an IFE system, even on a new plane, that’s better than an old, cheap tablet - and chances are, that IFE system will still be around in 10 years.