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Taking Photos on Planes: On the No-Fly List?

Ever since I took my first flight more than 30 years ago, I have been an unrepentant window seat flier. For me, flying is all about the view. The world looks remarkably different from above in countless ways; things that look ugly and industrial from the ground can display unexpected beauty from the air, and things that look beautiful from the ground can look menacing and foreboding from above.

And you can find strange resonances in between the two; compare this teardrop-shaped train depot to this snow-covered, teardrop-shaped ridge. I have found taking aerial photographs from commercial flights to be a rich, rewarding and very easy photographic practice.

On the more obsessed side of the practice are planespotters, folks who haunt airports and back porches to nab photos of aircraft of every type and every vintage worldwide. Planespotters have their own message boards, Web sites, Meetup groups and more; it is a dedicated and widespread community. Whether you are taking photos from or of aircraft, the photographic rewards can be significant; give me the variety of a view out the window over the convenience of an aisle seat any day.

Cameras Off During Takeoff and Landing

Over the years, even as digital cameras pushed film cameras almost entirely out of the picture, I faced no resistance to my onboard photo-taking until a recent US Airways flight back from Seattle, on which my family had bulkhead seats in the first row of coach — perfect for photos, given the location ahead of the wings and the jet exhaust. Unfortunately, the attendant in first class showed a curious vigilance toward making sure my camera was turned off during both takeoff and landing, something I have never experienced.

Technically, I understand how a camera comes under the umbrella of “anything with an on/off switch” in current use on airplanes — and it is worth noting that newer GPS-enabled cameras offer another reason that they might get lumped in with phones, tablets and computers in having to be shut off — but I had never really thought of a camera in the same group as a cell phone or computer.

Anyway, I complied and missed a few potentially excellent photos. On my next flight with US Airways a month later, though, I took a heap of photos without comment from anyone. My seat was near the middle of the plane this time, so it’s possible I was simply not noticed during takeoff and landing — but I think you will find this is one of those policies that will vary in enforcement from flight to flight, and even flight attendant to flight attendant. We have to live with that sometimes.

Kicked Off a United Flight for Taking a Picture of His Seat

Fortunately, my seat on the plane was never in jeopardy — unlike that of mega-frequent flier Matthew Klint, who has 950,000 miles on United Airlines but was kicked off a flight for taking a picture of the tray table and TV screen in his first-class seat from Newark to Istanbul last month. You can read his detailed account of the event here; after you get over the flight attendant and pilot’s behavior toward Klint, the main policy issue is that that United does not want you to take any photos or video while onboard United planes, except for those of “personal events.”

Where can you find this policy? Not anywhere on the United Web site policy sections, as best I can tell after quite a bit of searching (if you find it, please let me know).

In fact, as Klint discovered, the place it can be found is in the back pages of Hemispheres magazine — that’s right, the in-flight publication stuffed into the greasy, bacteria-laden seatback pocket in front of you. Check it out here, on page 131 of the March 2013 Hemispheres issue.

The somewhat stunning fact is that a policy that the airline takes seriously enough to kick people off the plane can be found only in the in-flight magazine; it is not in the airline’s Contract of Carriage, or anywhere on its Web site.

It makes sense to me that an airline does not want people taking extensive photos of the interior of the aircraft — in our security-obsessed society, the argument can be made that such photos could be used to create a plan to damage the aircraft — but man, is this ever a losing battle. If people want to get photos of an exit door, there is pretty much no stopping them; they book a flight, pay for the exit row, take out their cell phone mid-flight and snap a few pictures. Having a policy in the back of Hemispheres magazine isn’t going to stop a real terrorist (or anyone, really; who has read that passage?!?). It is almost absurd even to have it in there. Terrorist: “Oops, this magazine says I can’t take any pictures. Oh, well, plan aborted; I guess I’ll just watch the in-flight movie.” The airlines don’t have to make it easy for terrorists, but they way they are handling this whole issue is just silly.

United got in touch with Klint, and although Klint reports it did not offer an apology or any compensation, the carrier did say it’s doing an internal investigation. In the meantime, do all airlines have a similar policy? What about the FAA and TSA?


United’s Contract of Carriage does not mention photography at all, and searches on the Web sites (and online in-flight magazines, just to be sure) of a number of other airlines produced pretty much no mention whatsoever of taking photos in the air. Calls to several carriers offered the following:

JetBlue: According to a customer service representative at JetBlue, there is no specific policy, because cell phones are allowed to be in used in-flight. Depending on the carry-on you have, you may or may not be allowed to bring camera equipment onboard (this with respect to professional photography equipment). The airline does ask that you leave the photo and video taking to your personal use (like taking a shot of your kids sitting on the plane, for example).

American: American Airlines doesn’t allow professional photography equipment onboard. The use of cell phones is permitted when announced by a flight attendant. The cabin crew will also announce before flight what their policy may or may not be; usually you can use your phone for photos and videos for personal purposes.

Delta: Photos and videos are permitted for personal use only, and cabin crew will announce before take-off what their policy is for that particular flight. (Have any Delta regulars ever heard such an announcement? None of us here at IT can recall ever hearing photography mentioned in any way, on any flight, ever!)

Southwest: In-flight photography and video are permitted unless otherwise noted on the plane or stated by flight attendants. If you are using a cell phone to take these pictures or videos, you need to adhere to the cell phone policy, which is that you can’t use it until passengers are instructed by crew that it is okay to turn them on.

As best as I can tell, only United seems to have a very specific, printed policy regarding taking simple photos while onboard an aircraft. The FAA and TSA have no regulations on in-flight and airport photography, beyond the rules for security checkpoints, where you may take photos so long as you do not interfere with the security process.

“The TSA does not regulate photography in airports or on aircraft, other than at security checkpoints,” Department of Homeland Security representative Besse Guevara said. Beyond the checkpoints, the agencies defer to the airlines to enforce their specific photography and camera usage policies. So when in doubt, check the safety card on your specific aircraft; there will usually be some graphical information about which different devices can be used in flight and when.

Private Property

All of this said, in the end a plane is the private property of the airline, and if it doesn’t want you to take photos on the aircraft, then you can’t take photos on the aircraft. The same goes for all privately owned property, such as a museum, or a building, or your home, or your car. If you ask guests on your property not to take photos of your property, they must abide. Additionally, some government-owned buildings restrict photography as well; the only time you truly have a right to take photos is in public spaces.

And as mentioned above, an important consideration in the age of digital cameras is that most modern cameras are battery-driven, and as such are classified a “portable electronic device.” This means you can’t use them below 10,000 feet — unless no one tells you otherwise, I suppose.

Even if you have a hand-cranked film camera, there is the potential that aircraft crew can ban use of the item due to the potential for it to become loose in turbulence and create a hazard. In the end, if they want you to stow the camera, at least below cruising altitude, you are probably going to have to do so.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

As it turns out, aerial photography is coming under fire from more than just United flight attendants these days. Many planespotters have reported anecdotal evidence of airports cracking down on their beloved hobby, often for poorly or incompletely explained reasons. Real estate photographers have been on notice for some time that aerial photography for any commercial use is closed — and rapid advances in drone aircraft have created even more uncertainty of late.

The state of New Hampshire recently proposed banning all forms of aerial photography. This seems intended to limit drone photography, but in fact includes language that says “any device that is not supported by the ground,” which sure would seem to mean commercial airplanes. This could have very broad implications for anyone with a camera in the air — even something like this Dad’s video of his daughter’s first flight in his plane would be banned if the language remains as written:

For more than 30 years, I have been photographing from the windows of airplanes without concern or comment; then, four days into 2013, I was told to stow my camera for the first time. In the years since, the issue has nearly exploded; it seems that this topic will only become more fraught and complex as time and technology advance.

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