Proposed regulation would allow filming on flights

Is it illegal to use a camera on a commercial flight? No.

But if you’re planning to fly soon, be wary of that urge to whip one out and photograph your plane cabin, let alone your fellow passengers or the crew. Many airlines threaten passengers who do it with deplaning, arrest and other penalties.

But maybe not for too much longer. If the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) agrees to a petition by two consumer advocates to establish once and for all that airlines can’t do this, you may be able to take pictures or videos of your flight without having to worry that it will get you booted off the plane.

Benjamin Edelman and Mike Borsetti are petitioning the DOT to establish a Passenger Right to Record, which would provide that, among other things, “passenger recordings, subject to reasonable conditions, are in the public interest; recordings made to resolve bona fide disputes are presumptively in the public interest.”

Edelman and Borsetti’s petition asks the DOT to issue rules that indicate

  • that recordings consistent with these rules are a passenger’s right
  • that recording, in and of itself, does not “assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crewmember”
  • that airline personnel be prohibited from asserting that such recordings “are prohibited by law”; from removing or threatening to remove passengers for such recordings; from conditioning travel or other benefits on failure to record, promising not to record, or deleting recordings; or from otherwise interfering with such recordings”
  • that it is an unfair and deceptive practice for an airline to ban or purport to ban recordings consistent with these provisions or to impose restrictions on passengers “beyond the requirements contained in the airline’s Conditions of Contract, International General Rules, or other applicable contract”
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Finally, the petition requests that the DOT assess whether a number of acts constitute “unfair or deceptive practices,” and, if so, “that the department bring appropriate and timely enforcement proceedings.”

The points in the petition may be addressed in the pending Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. Flight attendants are said to be pushing for a total ban on in-flight photography.

The acts listed in the petition include a number of incidents on commercial flights that were recorded by passengers, such as the forcible removal of David Dao from a United Airlines flight and an assault with a stroller by an American Airlines flight attendant on a mother of twins, noting that video and photographic evidence clarified that the underlying events took place. In several instances, notably that of Dao’s removal, the recordings supported the passengers’ versions of the events as opposed to the airlines’ versions.

The petition also describes inconsistently enforced, nontransparent passenger recording policies by several airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest, Delta, United and JetBlue. (Note: All links to airline policies in this paragraph are to domestic contracts of carriage; international flights may be subject to other policies. Executive contact information for various airlines, including those listed here, is available on our website.)

All permit the respective airlines to refuse to allow a passenger to fly if the airline personnel think they pose a threat. For example, Delta’s permits it to “refuse to transport any passenger, or may remove any passenger from its aircraft, when refusal to transport or removal of the passenger is reasonably necessary in Delta’s sole discretion for the passenger’s comfort or safety, for the comfort or safety of other passengers or Delta employees, or for the prevention of damage to the property of Delta or its passengers or employees.”

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But it’s hard to see how removing a passenger for using a camera on a flight is reasonably necessary for the comfort or safety of anyone other than people behaving badly, whether they are unruly passengers or airline personnel mistreating flyers — let alone should allow airlines to prevent passengers using cameras from flying.

So, we hope, along with Edelman and Borsetti, that the DOT will enact rules in accordance with this provision and put an end to airlines’ attempts to stop recordings and photography on their flights. Hopefully, that in turn will create happier flying experiences for all — and we’ll have photographic proof of it.

Should passengers be allowed to use a camera on a commercial flight?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • sirwired

    A petition ((surely to be opposed by cabin crew, which have actual lobbying dollars) by some random citizens to a regulatory agency required not to do a single thing with it (and under an administration for which “new regulation” is anathema)… well I’d say that there is no “maybe” about it; this is going nowhere.

  • Kerr

    Actually it isn’t a “new” regulation, but rather the rolling back of an existing one.

  • sirwired

    That is not correct. If you read the petition, the part at the end with the actual rulemaking request is full of “we request that the department issue rules…” There’s no mention of a roll-back. (There are a couple requests that the department issue a ruling on interpretation of existing rules.)

  • James

    I do not want and do not like having people I do not know filming me without my permission.

  • Rinacres

    I dont mean this in a snarky way, but do you never shop in a mall or grocery store? They all have cameras recording your every move, and I am sure you dont know all of them. What about walking down a street in a downtown area? Again, cameras recording normal foot traffic. There are many people who have their own dashcams now – are you going to quit driving? Unfortunately the days of giving your permission to be recorded or photographed are far behind us. At most you can protest at having those recordings posted to a public site without your permission, but if you are in a public area, you are giving up many of your rights to privacy simply by being there. Were you aware that even being in your own house, if you are standing by a window without curtains or shades drawn, you are implicitly giving anyone standing outside on the public street or sidewalk permission to photograph you? The onus will be on you to politely request that the person filming not include you in the frame, and hope they are of a character to respect your wishes.

  • Alan Gore

    A passenger cabin is a public space, and passengers in it should be permitted to film in any manner that is permitted in other public spaces (no ‘upskirting’ of any specific person, for example). The point of a right to film, and guide to judging edge cases, should be independent monitoring of crew interactions with the passengers.

  • Rebecca

    Make sure you’re never in a Target. They have a state of the art, best in retail surveillance system that can record things you would never think a retail camera could record. We’re talking you can zoom in on a license plate in the very back of the lot or zoom in on a cashier putting bills in the drawer and read the denomination.

    Let alone the camera in big cities. London has literally millions of cameras.

  • Bill___A

    Those are more generic. Target is not likely to put the pictures on disgracebook.

  • EdB

    Don’t be so sure of that. I have seen lots of store security footage online showing people doing stupid stuff. Bottom line is they can if they want to and you have no recourse.

  • greg watson

    If I am prominently shown in any picture , publicly displayed, without my permission, well you know what will happen…………………………..don’t you ?

  • EdB

    If the picture was taken in public, nothing.

  • RightNow9435

    Of course, the airlines don’t like it. They want to be able to do whatever they want without it showing up in FB or the evening news. Best bet–make sure your photos save to the cloud, so forced deletion still has them available.

  • michael anthony

    Last weeks incident on AIR ASIA X from Perth had dozens of paxs filming. It happens every time there is an incident onboard. Thus, the rule isn’t being enforced.

    The problem is these paxs are then posting, sending, etc, while still in air. You’re only supposed to be in airplane mode, thus these sending and posting are exiting airplane mode. The risk is minimal, but there have been 5 cases in 10 years where active cell phones have interfered with flight operation.

  • EdB

    Do you have any links to that claim of active cell phones interfering with flight operation?

  • James

    May things have changed — but when I learned photography (and I do photography as a hobby) if I am taking a picture where someone can be readily identified in the picture, I was taught to ask permission to use the picture. I know it is not a legal requirement, but it is common courtesy. (And is a legal requirement if the photograph is later used to endorse or otherwise advertise.)

  • DChamp56

    How do you know they’re not using the on-board Wi-Fi to post?

  • Shirley G

    Here, here, well said.

  • joycexyz

    If you are in a public place, you have no expectations of privacy. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, even a little creepy, but that’s the law.

  • bayareascott

    Actually, an aircraft cabin is a private space where you have purchased the right to be present. The airport, on the other hand, is a public space.

  • Alan Gore

    Airlines would like you to believe this, and use that assertion as a basis for throwing pax off a flight if they film something embarrassing when an incident occurs. This is why we need to nail down our rights with this legislation.

  • Alan Gore

    Leaving your phone in airplane mode does not affect camera operation.

  • EdB

    You can have public space in/on private property. For example, inside a mall. While the mall is private property, the mall is open to the public and considered a public space and you have no expectation of privacy.

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