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”
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.”
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.