I picked up an interesting article last week by Christopher Elliott, a reader advocate for National Geographic Traveler, with the article titled “Don’t Take a Picture on the Plane Until You Read This Story”, which certainly rang some bells with me!
Christopher’s article said that next time you’re tempted to take a snapshot of an interesting cloud formation or your seatmate sprawling into your personal space on a plane, remember Arash Shirazi and Steven Leslie.
He said that both of them are law-abiding citizens and air travellers, but both recently ran afoul of the airline industry’s confusing photography rules and with only days before the busy summer travel season unleashes millions of shutterbugs on America’s airports, it’s helpful to know about the airline industry’s little problem with cameras so that your own camera doesn’t become hung up on it.
Shirazi, a music agent, was recently waiting in the Reagan National terminal for a flight from Washington to Los Angeles when he decided to take a picture of an American Airlines aircraft with his smartphone. He wanted to share it with his friends on social media.
A gate agent saw him snapping photos, stopped Shirazi and “demanded to know why I was taking a picture of airport equipment,” he remembers, adding, “I showed her the picture and offered to delete it, but she became even more combative, accusing me of being a security threat. She made it a point to tell me that she was going to document this security breach in my travel record.”
Shirazi said he apologized, adding that even as a frequent flier he was unaware of any prohibitions against taking photos of planes, adding, “But she was curt and told me to either get on the plane or take the next one.”
Christopher says he’s right, with American Airlines not publishing any prohibitions against taking photos of its aircraft, but late last year it updated its internal policies to allow employees at the airport, including ticket counters, gates, cargo, baggage and on-board, to stop passengers from taking pictures.
Andrea Huguely, an American Airlines spokeswoman said. “The policy is in place to protect employees and customers.”
Christopher goes on to reveal that Steven Leslie faced a similar reaction from an airline employee when he started filming a passenger boarding a JetBlue flight. With Leslie, a soft-spoken pharmacist flying from Albuquerque to New York, noticing a family with a sick child. The crew looked worried about the boy’s health. His family said he had cancer and had been medically cleared to fly.
The incident occurred only a few days after another cancer patient was expelled from an Alaska Airlines flight under similar circumstances, and Leslie decided to tape the conversation on his phone, saying, “It was my original intent to record this uncomfortable situation because I felt it was wrong.”
Apparently, JetBlue felt something was wrong, too, because after the family was removed from the aircraft, an airline employee ordered that Leslie delete the video, which he politely refused, and then he, too, was escorted from the aircraft.
The reason? A crew member told him he didn’t “feel safe” being recorded. JetBlue rebooked Leslie on the next flight, which departed nine hours later.
Christopher says that after he covered the incident on his consumer advocacy blog and a New Mexico TV station aired a report about Leslie’s expulsion, the airline reviewed the incident and admitted to Leslie that the crew member’s request to delete the recording fell into a “grey area,” but they apologised, offered him a flight credit and covered some of his expenses associated with spending an extra night in Albuquerque.
It turns out JetBlue doesn’t have a published photography policy, either, with Morgan Johnston, an airline spokesman saying, “Our crew members use their professional judgment in evaluating the appropriate use of photography or videography on-board, especially when it involves the privacy of other customers and the safe and secure operations of the airline.”
Christopher says if these incidents prove anything, it’s that airlines can be a little camera-shy and that’s not new, with when pressed, most airlines saying that their policies allow cameras to be used on-board to record a “personal” event, but that snapshots of the crew, other passengers or any security procedure are off-limits.
But Christopher also says that what’s unusual is the number of photography cases that have crossed his desk recently, thanks to the loosening of restrictions on in-flight electronics, amplified by a larger debate about police misconduct and body cameras happening beyond travel.
He says that if he had to make an educated guess, he’d predict more confrontations between crew members and passengers with cameras in the future.
So, he asks the question, can airlines stop you from taking photos? Daniel Greenberg, an attorney who specializes in photography rights issues says yes, if you’re on a plane, adding, “You can’t prohibit photography in public,” adding, “But the prohibition of photography on private property is legitimate.” “That decision is up to the property owner.” “If you don’t want to follow the carrier’s rules, don’t get on the carrier’s plane.”
Christopher says for US summer air travellers, it’s perhaps best to view photography on planes as you would taking pictures in France, a country known for its restrictive public photography laws. At least that’s how Nancy Nally, a frequent flier and photographer, thinks of it, saying “I’m very careful about the circumstances I photograph in on-board,” adding, “I am very clear about not pointing the camera at anyone but myself or inanimate objects.” “I don’t photograph with flight attendants nearby.” “I have gotten very good at not drawing attention to myself because I know that my travel schedule is subject to the whims of the flight attendants.”
Jeffrey Loop, an attorney and photographer, agrees that keeping a low profile is the best way to avoid a photography-related entanglement, adding, “If you are taking photos on the aircraft and are asked to stop, don’t argue or take offense,” also saying, “Just stop and save yourself a heap of potential trouble.” “Arguing with cabin crew about your perceived rights will almost always be a losing proposition.”
Christopher asks why airlines are so photo-sensitive and could part of the reason surely be publicity as they don’t want to end up in a viral video, with another part being security, which Shirazi’s incident only hints at.
Either way, he says it means that on your next flight, you’ll need to watch where you point that lens.
As I say this article rang a bell with me and I would imagine with other journos, who try and give the airlines that generously fly us around the world the benefit of our publicity for doing so.
I have learn from my experiences that it is vital to secure head office approval in writing before filming on board, doing whatever you can to avoid showing passenger’s faces, and making what you are doing is known to the most senior member of the cabin crew.
Having said all that, I had all the required written approval to film on a domestic flight a little while ago and was doing so as passengers were boarding, avoiding shooting passengers’ faces, but I did get a flight attendant in shot. The result was the he marched across to me, demanding that I delete the images and video clips, as I had no authority to shoot on board. I said I would, but in the meantime I gave him the letter of authority, to which he responded that he did not care who had approved me filming, as on board the aircraft the flight attendants had control and he did not want me filming.
I agreed … nicely, but he marched off to the front of the aircraft to speak with the senior flight attendant and he then went to the flight deck, it appears to ask the captain to have me removed from the aircraft. I was asked to go and speak with the Captain, which I did and as fate would have it, it turned out that I knew him, and I showed him my approval, to which he just shook his head, told me to carry on and advised me to keep the flight attendants out of shot.
I also was subject to another similar incident, this time on an international flight, when I had a flight attendant in shot and was advised by her that I could not include her in any images or videos, irrespective that I had the airline’s approval to shoot on board including shooting the crew, as she had a modelling contract and any images or video of her had to be dealt with through her manager!
What can I say, except colleagues, be aware, very aware!
Written by John Alwyn-Jones