Don’t take a picture on the plane until you’ve read this story

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.

Both of them are law-abiding citizens and air travelers. And both recently ran afoul of the airline industry’s confusing photography rules.

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.

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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. “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. “But she was curt and told me to either get on the plane or take the next one,” he recalls.

He’s right. American Airlines doesn’t publish 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 onboard, to stop passengers from taking pictures.

“The policy is in place to protect employees and customers,” says Andrea Huguely, an American Airlines spokeswoman.

Steven Leslie faced a similar reaction from an airline employee when he started filming a passenger boarding a JetBlue flight. Leslie, a soft-spoken pharmacist flying from Albuquerque to New York, noticed 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.

“It was my original intent to record this uncomfortable situation because I felt it was wrong,” he says.

Apparently, JetBlue felt something was wrong, too. After the family was removed from the aircraft, an airline employee ordered that Leslie delete the video. 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. After I covered the incident on my 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 “gray area.” It apologized, 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. “Our crew members use their professional judgment in evaluating the appropriate use of photography or videography onboard, especially when it involves the privacy of other customers and the safe and secure operations of the airline,” says Morgan Johnston, an airline spokesman.

If these incidents prove anything, it’s that airlines can be a little camera-shy. That’s not new. When pressed, most airlines say that their policies allow cameras to be used onboard to record a “personal” event, but that snapshots of the crew, other passengers or any security procedure are off-limits.

But what’s unusual is the number of photography cases that have crossed my desk recently, thanks to the loosening of restrictions on in-flight electronics. They’re amplified by a larger debate about police misconduct and body cameras happening beyond travel. If I had to make an educated guess, I’d predict more confrontations between crew members and passengers with cameras in the future.

Can airlines stop you from taking photos? Yes, if you’re on a plane, says Daniel Greenberg, an attorney who specializes in photography rights issues.

“You can’t prohibit photography in public,” he says. “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.”

For summer air travelers, 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.

“I’m very careful about the circumstances I photograph in onboard,” she explains. “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. “If you are taking photos on the aircraft and are asked to stop, don’t argue or take offense,” he adds. “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.”

Why are airlines so photo-sensitive? Part of the reason is surely publicity; they don’t want to end up in a viral video. Another part is security, which Shirazi’s incident only hints at.

Either way, it means that on your next flight, you’ll need to watch where you point that lens.

This story was published on May 11, 2015.

22 thoughts on “Don’t take a picture on the plane until you’ve read this story

  1. The proliferation of device cameras helps us here. Use of smartphone for imaging is so widespread that nobody notices them any more. They have become ‘transparent’. If you take out your DSLR on a plane or at the airport, your can hear everyone snapping to mental attention. “He’s got a ‘professional’ camera, and must be up to no good.” Even if your name isn’t Shirazi, you might be one of those dreaded whistle-blowers, and will be escorted off the plane.

    But if you have your phone out and appear to be idly fiddling with it, it’s easy to avoid getting peoples’ attention during an inflight incident. Swipe into the camera app, set tne mode to Video and Record, and stick it in your shirt pocket with just the lens peeping out.

  2. Airport rules and carrier rules? Where does one draw a line between the two? Are municipal airports public spaces? Likely all pre-security areas are but after a security checkpoint probably not. But whose rules apply? The airport or the carrier? If the cops who come to an incident are wearing body cams, do the (airport or carrier) rules mean they must be turned off or does the fact it’s on a cop make it different? And if I’m a member of the public with a ticket in the security area and neither the carrier nor the airport has published rules about photography (only internal rules to employees) how can I be held or not allowed to take an action for violating something that is kept “secret”? A little transparency would go a long way. How hard could it be to publish something about “rules” that says that if you are in the concourse area or on a plane that if an airline employee requests you to take or not take a certain action that not complying could have consequences. Might not be the best but it would be preferable to the current “because I said so” that seems to be the status quo.

  3. They don’t “feel safe” being recorded? How exactly does that work?

    I suppose they could prohibit filming on-board the aircraft, but why? (I’m pretty sure you can film to your heart’s content in the gate area, since terminals are owned by the local authorities.)

    1. They “don’t feel safe” is the catch-all for “I’m going to pull rank and you’re toast”, I think. I limit my photography to out the window, my meal, and photos of people traveling with me – and the latter only quickly and right upon boarding.

  4. I guess I’m courting trouble when I snap pics of the earth from my window seat. I do it all the time when there is little cloud cover.

  5. so just to make this clear, a plane is a “private” place when it comes to taking pictures, but it is a “public place” when it comes to passenger behavior? I’ve seen many comments on this site about how plains are public, and all of the public has rights, and then this. It is either one or the other.

    1. Well, your iPhone is always “wireless”. I suspect you are saying that it uploads when your phone is on WiFi only, not on Cellular Data. And yes, mine too, except when I’m on vacation. I don’t want to run the risk of losing a photo through a lost or damaged phone! My Camera also uses an Eye-Fi card that uploads my photos to the cloud through my cellphone. so again, If I delete a photo on my camera, it’s always going to be there on my cloud.

  6. Taping (recording actually) a conversation between a sick child’s parents and the airline on which they are to fly seems intrusive and frankly creepy.

    1. Yes, that’s tasteless. The airlines do have a right to deny boarding to someone who is too ill too fly. Medical emergencies at 35,000 feet are not convenient to deal with. Once a member of our party was not well and the counter agent wanted to refuse to give her a boarding pass. I said something along the lines of, “She’s getting better – why not give her a boarding pass and let the gate agent make the final call.” She went along with it. I told my friend, “If you like, I’ll stay behind with you and we’ll take a flight tomorrow, but if you want to fly today, you’re an actress. Your task for the next 30 minutes is to play the role of a person feeling healthy.” It worked. She got on the flight, slept throughout, and was doing much better on arrival.

  7. “With only days before the busy summer travel season unleashes millions of shutterbugs on America’s airports…” Summer? Was this article in the queue for a while?? Sadly, in Ohio it is not anything like summer!

  8. Any rule that is not available to the public is not an enforcable rule. Otherwise, any emplyee could make absolutly anything up and we would have no way of calling BS without getting sent to jail if we were wrong on that call.

  9. I hate to tell you how many pictures I took out the window of my flights from LAX to SYD and back. It was this past Oct. and I was on United. However, I also took many pictures out the window of my domestic flights on Qantas. I didn’t hide anything and I’m sure the flight attendants saw me. No repercussions.

  10. let’s face it, airline employees like the TSA are some of the lowest paid & so it attracts the not so clever.
    Literally anyone can become a flight attendant, but who would want that job.
    With smart phones with flash turned off, it’s very easy to take photos or vidoes without anyone even noticing.
    Pretend to be talking on the phone hands free.

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