Topic of the Week: The Evil That is Airplane Photography

Matthew from Live and Let’s Fly wrote up a story about how he was removed from a United flight to Istanbul for taking pictures.

<sarcasm>Clearly the flight attendant was right for ridding the airplane of such a terrible menace.</sarcasm>

Assuming this is true (which we don’t know for sure, but I have little reason to doubt it), can anyone see a good reason why this should be the case? And I’m talking about a really good reason, not some cooked up idea that maybe the Soviets are going to try to steal seat technology or the Taliban is going to bring our airplanes down with photobombs.


104 Responses to Topic of the Week: The Evil That is Airplane Photography

  1. Mke says:

    good reason?

    i wouldnt want to be on a plane with that guy either.
    glad there is something called captains authority

  2. Jorg says:

    I read Matthew’s blog and let’s start by saying that I find the ‘rules’ as outlined in Hemisphere already extremely confusing. First they tell you it’s OK for personal usage, then they tell you it’s completely prohibited in any UA aircraft. Then, when can I take a picture? Outside the A/C? I don’t think that’s up to UA at all.

    The only reason I can imagine, is competitor information. Delta could see what United offers on their airplane. Pretty stupid reason anyway. Any competitor can book a flight and find out personally. Furthermore, with the number of videos on Youtube (about 132,000 when searching for ‘United Airlines’) I can’t imagine anything is still a secret.

  3. Bobber says:

    Why bother mentioning ‘terrorist’ to the FA at all? That in itself is probably all the FA’s/Captain needed to justify removing the guy (rightly or wrongly).

    • He was saying he was not a terrorist. Probably a bad word choice, but given his context “I want you to understand why I was taking pictures. I hope you didn’t think I was a terrorist. Here is my business card [offering her one]. I write about United Airlines on an almost-daily basis and the folks at United in Chicago are even aware of my blog.” This was fine.

  4. MathFox says:

    The whole story raises a lot of questions with me.
    1) What is the legal base for United’s photo ban?
    2) Is the instruction from the FA to stop making pictures an instruction regarding safety?
    3) Is “We don’t like this person on board” a valid reason for refusing flight?

    If Matthew does not withhold relevant information I really wonder why the United crew insisted on his removal… It perfectly fits in the trend that people with some power in the US can’t seem to stand any challenge to their authority. Which is a long way from the principles of the war of independence.

    • 1) Legal basis for United’s photo ban: They own/are the sole lessor of the airplane, they can say what you can and can’t do on it.
      2 and 3) Who knows?

      • SEAN says:

        Sounds like the same rules in malls & on public transit. It’s not illegal to take pictures, but security will tell you otherwise. If you challenge their authority, then the FBI or some other agency gets notified & then fun really begins.

        • MathFox says:

          I’m looking at the situation from the east side of the Atlantic, where “the customer is king” has watered down to “the customer is paying your salary”.

          But anyway, the restriction on photography (however badly worded it is) would be part of a contract (civil law). [Aside, it might be non-binding for EUropean passengers when the regulation is not brought to attention of the passenger at the time of booking.] Furthermore I don’t see how Matthew broke the rule.
          What I understand is that Flight Attendants can give instructions to the passengers regarding safety and passengers have to obey them. That means that an FA bullying a passenger is wrong (on so many levels.)

          My feeling is that removal of Matthew from the plane is “breach of contract” from United and that Matthew should file a complaint, ask for compensation for the inconvenience and of the additional costs he made to obtain a new ticket to Baku.
          Missing a flight due to delay is something entirely different from missing a flight because you were ordered off the flight for no good reason.

          • this is VERY well stated…

            I?m looking at the situation from the east side of the Atlantic, where ?the customer is king? has watered down to ?the customer is paying your salary?.

  5. JRS says:

    “I want you to understand why I was taking pictures. I hope you didn’t think I was a terrorist…..”

    I think that was what freaked out the FA, using the word “terrorist” in any
    context is what got him kicked off the plane. I still think the FA overreacted but
    in the flying environment we have these days I’m not that surprised.

    • agreed. I hate that they removed a loyal flier and enthusiast and did it so rudly. But, he used a bad buzz word, and interrupted the crew while they were busy prepping for take off. Had he not said anything, they likely would have let it go and he could have apologized when they were in the air and not as busy. No good deed goes unpunished…

  6. Dale says:

    Having read Matthew’s account of the incident here is my take on the situation: I believe both sides are right AND wrong at the same time. Matthew was right to discontinue taking pictures but wrong for sure in using the word “terrorist” when following up with the stewardess. Just like I would not use the word “bomb” on an airplane or at an airport and I would never want to say “hi” to any person named “Jack” at an airport or on an airplane. Furthermore I think he was wrong in following up while on the ground as the crew was busy preparing for departure. The UA Captain was “right” in removing what he thought COULD have been a potential issue. The Captain has the absolute authority on who is on his flight. The UA stewardess was wrong in lying to the Captain about the situation. I think Matthew is right in seeking redress and the policy on photography needs to be clarified.

    I think it would be good for people to have on themselves a small audio and/or video recorder to secretly record any encounters with airline staff (or law enforcement officers) in case things go “south” during the encounter. Of course there about 12 states such as California where it is illegal to secretly audio record a conversation so in that case it would be necessary to tell the other party he or she is being recorded.

    I’ve taken numerous pictures while travelling by air and never got in trouble for it. I get window seats whenever possible so I can take pictures of the scenery. On an Air Canada Jazz flight from YXJ to YVR I took 290 pictures and the stewardess was OK with that. On an American Airlines flight from LAX to DFW I took 283 pictures. I use discretion when taking pictures and don’t take pictures of the crew or other passengers (except perhaps for the back of their heads if I take a cabin shot from the back). Since I got digital camera I’ve posted pictures to my Facebook page.

    • Jim says:

      Just to clarify, in two-party consent states such as California, it is illegal to secretly record a PRIVATE conversation without consent (such as on the phone). It is still perfectly legal to record a conversation taking place in a public place.

  7. Chris says:

    People believe that photography is a crime. …because terrorists are unable to remember details for themselves and require cameras.

    The explaination was probably largely unnecessary, but it’s a sad world that we live in if we have to dance around increasingly large swaths of the dictionary when on an airplane.

  8. Overreaction? Yes. But seriously….never ever use the word terrorist when trying to explain yourself to a flight crewmember. Politely extricate yourself from the situation, and follow up with the airline when you land. You won’t win in the air…even if you are right.

  9. Ben G says:

    My first thought when I saw this is that there is something about Newark. As an avid NY area planespotter, Newark is probably the only airport in the region that is downright hostile to photographers. It is widely regarded as not being worth the time to spot at since everybody in the area (not just on airport property) is anti-photography. Fellow spotters have been detained and had their memory cards illegally confiscated while spotting from a public rest area, and a major international furniture retailer with an ideal spotting location actively has their security chase off photographers even when the parking lot is mostly empty. The only exception to this is the one day a year that they open up a section of the ramp and freely allow photography of anything and everything, including a Kingdom Holdings 747-400 parked a couple hundred yards away last year. We’ve never quite been able to understand why people are so anti-photography there.

    This strikes me as being a gross exaggeration no the part of the FA, coupled with the actions of a captain who failed to at the very least verify the story he was being told. At the very least, some added attention should have been given to this considering that it involved a premium cabin passenger. This incident seemed so outlandish that myself and others all initially believed that there must be more to the story. However as it has gained traction in the media, other passengers have come out and corroborated Matthew’s story. You can read the first followup here: http://upgrd.com/matthew/update-united-airlines-responds-to-photo-incident.html

    While upon further information it seems as if Matthew’s use of the word “terrorist” played no role in the eventual outcome, it still was probably not the best choice of words to use. While I believe that there should not be words that are taboo to use, and in the context that he claims to have used it in there should have been no misunderstanding, the fact remains that some crewmembers may still be sensitive to the whole concept of terrorism on an aircraft. While the simple use of the word “terrorist” should almost never play any role in whether or not a person gets to fly, there was probably a better choice of words that he could have used in this case. “I mean no harm” would have been much more innocuous and yet would still have conveyed the same feeling.

  10. …(M)aybe the Soviets are going to try to steal seat technology or the Taliban is going to bring our airplanes down with photobombs.”

    I think you’ve nailed it, Brett (written with dripping sarcasm that I hope comes through).

  11. Well, all these comments about the wrong word are horrible and remind of some paranoia. People, are you hearing yourself? The guy said he wasn’t a terrorist. Don’t you understand the negative “not”? Are you afraid of all words now?

    Imagine an overhead bin is broken and a passenger makes a joke like “I hope it’s the only technical failure and the plane’s not gonna fall”. Will you support removing such a passenger for using words “failure”, “fall” and for making others panic on hearing these words?

    • Oliver says:

      Clearly the bad guys won if you can’t say “I am not a terrorist” within 100 yards of an airplane/port without getting in trouble. Fortunately I can exercise free speech in multiple languages.

    • Tom White says:

      Brett reported (Miami trip) about his being overheard commenting about whether the water drip had been properly fixed, and a fellow passenger whipped around to say “that;s not funny”. Did Brett apologize and say how embarrassed and wrong he had been? Even an airplane geek can make this mistake. Samara Citizen think that you, Brett, should have been denied boarding?

      • CF says:

        I’m really not following you, Tom White. I should have been denied boarding on the Miami flight because I said that they had decided that it was good enough to go?

        And no, I didn’t apologize because that not only wouldn’t have helped the other traveler but I was actually right. Instead, I just explained to her what I meant and comforted her.

      • Quite on the contrary I think that people/staff should exercise common sense and distinguish between a word and a word meaning actual harm. So, no in both cases I don’t think that anybody should have been denied boarding. That would be ridiculous.

  12. JRS says:

    “People, are you hearing yourself? The guy said he wasn?t a terrorist. Don?t you understand the negative ?not?? Are you afraid of all words now?”

    Just because someone says they are not something does not mean that it is true,
    the FA freaked out over him saying the word, doesn’t matter what the context
    was. Overreaction? of course but not that surprising.

    • Well, then go by car and fly only dumb and deaf passengers – they are safe and won’t be an issue when it comes to vocabulary. ))

    • Just to clarify, I do not support joking about terrorist threats or bombs on planes. But here the case was quite different. Nobody joked about a bomb. So I rather feel like it is a paranoia. Besides, that means that personnel (several people combined actually) are unable to see the difference between a terrorist and a normal person, which is quite disturbing.

    • MeanMeosh says:

      I don’t think JRS is defending the actions of the FA in this instance. He is pointing out that FAs today pretty much have absolute police power on their aircraft, and there are a handful that are more than happy to demonstrate that power. It may be paranoia (or more likely just a power trip) that set off the FA in this case, and her inability to distinguish a real threat may indeed be disturbing, but that doesn’t change the fact that they do have the power to kick you off the plane.

  13. Sean S. says:

    I do have to say one thing the author does not do himself any favors by dripping his blog post with condescencion and entitlement, going even so far as derisively referring to other passengers as “kettles” (I hate that term) and pointing out his status. While I agree his removal was baseless, and that one’s comments should not be enough to get one thrown off a plane, I do have to say I would hate to be seated anywhere near him on any flight.

    • interesting, i had several years as golds and platinums on different airlines but i don’t get the “kettles” reference, what does that mean?

      • Sean S. says:

        This is a good explanation: http://www.consumertraveler.com/columns/10-types-of-airline-passengers-which-one-are-you/

        5. Ma and Pa Kettle.
        The Kettles rarely fly, and their lack of experience shows. Urban legend goes that many years ago, during the summer travel boom caused by American Airlines? two-for-one sale, when the ?bus people? came out of the woodwork, a female customer was offered a window seat. That particular Mrs. Kettle responded to the agent, ?No, honey, I don?t want to mess up my hair.?

        You?ve seen Mr. and Mrs. Kettle. They don?t take their shoes off at the security checkpoint or have their boarding passes out for the TSA to inspect. They?re sort of the air travel equivalent of the woman in the grocery store who doesn?t take her checkbook out of her purse until the cashier finishes ringing everything up. The Kettles are the ones who don?t know where the lavatory is, who try to walk into the cockpit when told it?s in the front of the plane, and then can?t figure out how to lock the door and spend five minutes looking for the light switch.

        • LOL, that’s awesome. i’ve definitely disliked myriad kettles without even knowing the term. as a frequent coach px, however, i would take offense to the notion that EVERYBODY in cattle is a kettle! some of us just don’t travel as much anymore so we lack “status” but we still know what the hell we’re doing!

  14. MeanMeosh says:

    What???? You DON’T believe that the Russians and Chinese are planting spies on planes to steal our technology ????

    Unfortunately, in our post-9/11 world, it has been demonstrated time and time again that FAs have absolute, unquestionable police power when it comes to stuff like this. Some FAs have unfortunately allowed the power to go to their heads. Seems like this FA didn’t like being argued with, and so decided to show Matt who was boss by having him kicked off the flight (and tried to hide her identity to boot to thwart the filing of a complaint later). Do I like it, no, but whether you’re in the right or in the wrong, if an FA orders you to stop doing something, no matter how rude and/or condescending this person might be, it is in your best interest to comply quietly if you don’t want to be kicked off the flight and/or have the cops called on you. The time to complain is after the flight, when you can take it up with the captain, another member of the flight crew or a gate agent, or customer service.

    Back to your question, personally I have taken pictures on several flights and have never been asked to stop, though these are usually just of the scenery out my window or my wife in the seat next to mine. The only real reason I can think of to prohibit photography is protection of intellectual property. In other words, UA doesn’t want you taking pictures of their cabin layout and then leaking them to DL afterwards. But that’s pretty weak if you ask me. I also don’t know if this applies to UA airplanes or not, but under many state laws, a private business has the right to restrict photography on their premises for any reason. They don’t need a good one. Could be that UA is restricting photography for the same reason my late dogs used to lick a certain part of their anatomy – because they can.

  15. Bag Guy says:

    I can’t help but compare this to my first flight on the Qantas A380 last month LAX-SYD.
    We got lucky and received an upgrade to Business so we were acting like a couple of kids on our first airplane ride.
    Not only did we take lots of pictures and videos, but the F/A offered to take pictures of us as we snuggled into our seats.

  16. Ron says:

    I’m guessing the anti-photography policy is an attempt to protect the airline against copyright infringement lawsuits — as in, someone manages to copy and distribute a feature film and then the copyright owner sues the airline (the theory being, should such a lawsuit occur, the airline can use the policy in its defense). The policy is phrased in very broad terms, and is then misunderstood or misused by some of the staff.

  17. Ron says:

    I think a big part of the problem is the absolute authority a captain has over his or her aircraft, even when it’s on the ground. As far as I am aware, a bus or train operator in the US does not have the authority to remove a person from the vehicle, even if it causes delay; why does a ship or airplane have this authority?

    • Matthew says:

      Uh, a ship’s captain does…and has since people first taking to the water.

      • Oliver says:

        If I trust certain pirate movies, they also had the authority to have people caned etc. Times and rules change.

        That said, the pilot of an about to depart international flight probably has better things to do than trying to figure out who is right in a dispute between his FA and a pax. FA says pax is disruptive, and that’s going to be it. No time to play Judge Judy.

    • Sean S. says:

      Actually most transit authorities have police for this reason. Try arguing with a conductor on the NYC subway and see how far you get! Bus drivers can also often ask for assistance from local police, and I have been on busses before where the bus driver has stopped, order the pax off, and if they don’t do so, law enforcement is called.

    • I’m quite sure that public transit bus operators have the right to remove someone from their bus, I’ve seen it happen. I’m not sure if that is via local policy or other law.

      That being said private operators always have the right to ask you to leave, they own the vehicle. They might of course have to let you off somewhere safely.

    • MeanMeosh says:

      Don’t know the specifics of how this applies to every transit system, but as Nick said, public transit drivers (bus or train) usually do have the authority to kick unruly riders off. I too have seen it occur. Dallas Area Rapid Transit actually has a “Code of Conduct” where it pretty clearly indicates that those engaging in disruptive behavior are subject to removal and/or referral to the cops.

    • Ron says:

      Yes, this is exactly what I was talking about. A bus or train operator can ask a person to leave, but when law enforcement are called they may exercise their own judgment. The operator does not have the authority to remove a person from their vehicle just because they “don’t feel comfortable” with that passenger onboard.

  18. I think the underlying issue is that it was simply too easy for the FA to lie for whatever reason, and the captain to back her up.

    Perhaps the airline, or even the FAA,DHS, or whoever should require a page or two of paperwork to be filled out before departure when crew actually believes a pax to be a threat. Think about it, how many times have we read about connecting passengers being denied boarding of a plane sitting at the gate because the crew would have re-do their paperwork if they board?

    If a person is enough of a “threat” to be deplaned, then a few minutes of paperwork should be a non-issue. Somehow, I think the captain and FA would have reacted differently if tossing the passenger would have prevented an on-time departure rather than enabled it.

    • Oliver says:

      I’d the pax had had checked bags, it might very well have delayed the departure due to the need to remove the bags from the containers.

    • Jason Steele:

      Good point on the paper work which would have to include statements from passengers in the area if they heard/saw what the flight crew is saying.

      But with paperwork and signed statements, that would lead to the airline and crew members finding themselves in court being sued by all the innocent people they remove from planes and the airlines wouldn’t want that.

      I’ll have to ask the manager at the grocery store I go to if they can throw people out of the store for taking a photo, talking on the phone, having a crying child, being grumpy, asking for something, tasting a grape, switching shopping carts, etc. Bet the answer is no.

      • Oliver says:

        David, the difference, though, is that if the gape chewing offender escalates the situation three aisles over and starts opening cereal boxes, the store manager can call the police. On an airplane a later escalation would force a diversion or worse.

        By the way, who has been thrown off a plane for having a crying child?

    • If the story is believed as written – that flight attendant should be looking for a new job. We don’t know what the FA specifically said to the captain to precipitate the removal however I do think captain (with his direct unequivocating tone) was correct in his action. Flyers bloviate about their status and how important they are all of the time and are just as often drunk. The captain should always take the word of his crew over that of a passenger.

  19. BOSflyer says:

    I can’t believe some of the comments. Since when is it ok to kick people of a plane for asking a question? He obviously did not threaten the FA in any way, and I do think this is a case of simple paranoia – the FA should be taken out of service!

  20. First at 735am in California there is already 17 comments on this blog. That never happens at this time of (my) morning so this should be a good and interesting blog today.

    None of us knows what happen since we were not there and someone writing a blog could lean a story in their direction to make them look innocent.

    I can’t see the big deal of taking a photo inside of an airplane, but can understand not wanting someone to just go around taking photos of each passenger. We are all captured in photos many times a day when out in public between security cameras in buildings, atms, grocery stores etc, plus just in the back ground of lots of people taking cell phone photos or each other or objects.

    The key word was ‘Terroist’ as pointed out. Seems flight crews can have you removed for anything which is wrong. They can treat you like crap, but if you ask them to be nice they will have you arrested for interferring with a flight crew member.

    I always think it’s really stupid how a passenger is deemed unsafe to fly on a flight because the crew doesn’t want them on board, but the airline just turns around and puts them on another flight. Seems to me if they were ok to still fly, they it was wrong to removed them off the first flight.

    Since Cranky has shown many photos of the inside of an airplane when he travels, next weeks blogs should be coming from inside some state prison since all the airlines will now have his arrested, tried and convicted and tossed in the slammer :-)

  21. i read the article and most of the comments and several things stand out to me…

    first – blame UA’s absurd policy a little bit (15%) – their photography policy is 100% gibberish, frequently contradictory and generally nonsensical. i completely agree with this recent comment copied from that thread: “One line states ‘the use of…cameras…is permitted only for recording of personal events’ (huh??) but then goes on to say ‘any photography…is strictly prohibited’. So which one is it? Considering the clause ‘except to the extent specifically permitted by United Airlines’, I can see why the author might have gone back to the FA to justify his actions.”

    furthermore, nothing is more infuriating than a confusing policy that is selectively and inconsistently enforced.

    second – blame the author a little bit (15%) – my interpretation is that the author’s comment was intended both to justify his actions and possibly to even “big time” the FA. in any event, it was unnecessary. as i read it, i can certainly see how that “i am not a terrorist” comment could be said with an implied eye-roll, snark or similar. i am not even going to address the stupidity of having so-called “magic” words that cannot ever be said on a plane, even if they are immediately preceded by a negative. i am sure there is no such policy and, if the FA in question can’t use a little common sense and judgement about the context in which the word was said, he/she has no business being a FA in the first place. which brings me to…

    third – the FA was completely, totally, embarassingly wrong from this point onward (60%) – though it will never happen, the FA should be censured if not outright fired. at a minimum, the FA should have involved another party. in fact, for somebody who is very likely petty and overly interested in following the “rules” instead of using common sense and good judgement, I would think that involving another crew member is in that long list of rules (not to mention in the job description of the pursur). additionally, what is most offensive is that the FA clearly lied about the situation to the captain and possibly others. this is unforgivable, inexcusable and should be grounds for dismissal and clearly demonstrates the motives behind the FA’s actions (and also likely demonstrates that this person has no business being a FA in the first place, I am thinking DMV employee sounds like a better fit).

    fourth – the captain handled the situation poorly and demonstrated a lack of leadership and integrity (10%). this debacle could have begun to be defused (whoa, bomb reference, I hope that doesn’t get me kicked off crankyflier!) if he simply said that “regardless of the actual facts, which i cannot ever know for certain, if my FA is uncomfortable with the situation, i have to stand behind my crew member.” instead, he hemmed, hawed and made more nonsensical excuses that served to further infuriate the px. even if you accept that this situation had escalated to the point of ejection at this point, the captain (along with the GS rep) could have started the process of solving the problem instead of adding to it.

    • in summary – let’s face it, in spite of the 15% blame i assign to the author, we’ve all been in situations where we’ve said something out of frustration that we later regret. should it have gotten him thrown off the plane? of course not. in this scenario, common sense and good judgement were quickly exchanged for hysteria and overreaction. the FA is an incompetent liar and should be terminated. and i would never fly this airline again, except to use all of those miles.

  22. S. Brown says:

    ” am not even going to address the stupidity of having so-called ?magic? words that cannot ever be said on a plane, even if they are immediately preceded by a negative.”

    This is really the point. What about saying something like “Did you see that Bill Clinton photobombed Kelly Clarkson?” We all need to develop a little common sense, people. And rather than say “He shouldn’t have said the word terrorist, people really should call BS.

    Saying all that, from this and other posts, the person this happened to appears to be a bit of a diva. So what? Not liking somebody is not a valid excuse for removing somebody from an aircraft.

  23. SubwayNut says:

    I have a hobby photographing subway and rail stations (see my website) and also generally take pictures when I fly. Overall its quite rare that I’ve been yelled at for taking pictures, generally by low-level (ticket agent type employees or rent-a-cop security guards) simply (and being unfamiliar with their agencies photography policies, only a few systems do prohibit and require a permit) saying “You Can’t Take Pictures”. I have had about five incidents with the police, all of which resulted in them simply talking to me to figure out my intensions. I guess I can say I’ve been delayed once or twice for my photography, talking to them that resulted in me missing a train and simply taking the next one. Once on BART the cop told me photography was legal and fine, even ended with “I need to go talk to the station agent down” (who had gone bizerk at me for taking pictures). Once on Sounder (the commuter rail lines in Seattle) a security guard (who wasn’t telling me stop) actually joked with me and said “You don’t look like a terrorist.” I have to say that i would personally never and have never used the word terrorists in any of my confrontations. That just brings up a red flag in this day and age. I think saying that is what got Matthew thrown off he plane.

    The Port Authority of NY and NJ that runs EWR, LGA, and JFK is quite well known for being hostile to photography (particularly on PATH, although I’ve never gotten a clear answer if photography is permitted at airports under their rules or not). I have been asked to stop taking pictures on both AirTrain Newark and JFK by their red coats once or twice. I have never been asked to stop taking pictures outside of the AirTrains in the gate areas or outside the terminals (I really don’t fly much) and this included taking a huge photo essay (haven’t posted it anywhere on the web) last month when I flew out of Terminal 3 at JFK, the soon to be demolished PanAm WorldPort on Delta. It turned out my flight was at a gate in Terminal 4 that required a shuttle bus ride. I even took a few photos anywhere on that trip. That day was completely without incident (including on AirTrain JFK). The goal of the photos were to document a soon to be demolished landmark and historical building. I will finish with all my photography work is on my hand-held Canon SLR which is much more obvious than using an iPhone or other camera phone.

    • the specious link between photography and security is starting to bother me.

      if there are things associated with airports, train stations and bridges that are so critical to our protection that photos of them in the wrong hands could be problematic, these things SHOULDN’T BE VISIBLE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!

      • Ben G says:

        Many plane spotters (myself included) have argued for years that we are a security asset, not a risk. We tend to know what we are looking at and can tell if something is out of place. We also tend to strike up a conversation with those around us (aviation is a social hobby, not just for the pilots) so we should be able to tell if someone seems out of place. However, there are those in the general public that don’t understand our hobby and will call the police on us. I have no problem presenting my ID and having a friendly conversation with an officer about what we are doing. It amounts to public education. In some areas in NYC, we have gone from having regular encounters with the police to having them wave at us as they pass. Typically when we are approached these days, it is because somebody called 911 and they have to check us out because of that.

        • Ben G says:

          Also, after an event at EWR last fall, I took a round trip ride on the AirTrain. At both ends I was questioned by the redcoats who couldn’t seem to understand why somebody was riding to the end, getting off and then right back on. At the second end, I actually made a restroom stop and was approached after I exited as to why I was getting back on. They are very vigilant there.

    • Ben G says:

      As I remember it, photography on PATH is prohibited. As for the PANYNJ Airports, there is no specific rule stating that photography is or is not allowed, other than at the security checkpoints where it is prohibited. There is a common misconception among Airport employees and contractors that it is “illegal” (its not written this way) or “against FAA rules” (the FAA specifically has stated that they have no problem with photography and that they couldn’t stop it even if they wanted to). Hopefully the work of others will soon be bringing clarification to the PANYNJ policies so that there is at least some ground to stand on if and when we are confronted.

  24. M P says:

    I would tend to agree with Matthew, as I have had mixed experiences with United(post-merger), and I tend to find United Flight Crews(originally United) to be incredibly powercentric and generally rude(curt) to all passengers, including premium passengers. I would not place blame on Newark, as prior to the merger, I found continental flight crews to be quite nice, talkative and they definitely allowed photography, and being a frequent flier on UA88/89(EWR-PEK) I have taken photos of both BFirst and economy seats without reprimand both pre and post merger.

    Personally, I believe United needs to take action regarding the particular FA, it would not be difficult to obtain her name and that of the captain for the flight, and while a captain has ultimate authority on his/her aircraft, they also have the responsibility of maintaining and upholding the airlines reputation and to maintain customers, especially individuals who are paying a premium to fly or fly a lot on a single carrier, United has and will continue to suffer from capital flight as more frequent fliers leave what is becoming a very unstable and inconsistent airline. taking action, publicly, in defense of the passenger(matthew) would represent a positive image that United values their frequent fliers, and should this story become more public, it would undoubtably cause United more frustration and loss of revenue than the two individuals (FA/pilot) are worth to the airline

    • Ben G says:

      Just to clarify, I wasn’t placing the blame on Newark, more noting the general anti-photography attitude in that geographic area. I don’t believe that the attitude by airport employees and surrounding businesses and individuals played any role in this incident.

  25. Bill Hough says:

    I hope this story goes viral like that “United breaks guitars” thing a while ago. UA deserves all the bad publicity for allowing something like this to happen. It’s an outrage that the FA got a bug up her ass about taking a harmless photo on a plane. Unfortunately the use of the t-word probably ruined the situation, but the FA’s initial behaviour was out of line. And simply saying that you’re NOT a terrorist should not trigger a negative response since that is not like making a false threat.

  26. Shane says:

    Is it true that business/first cabins on international flights have the more senior flight attendants? If so, they should also be the best trained for conflict resolution since they are dealing with non-US nationals who have language and cultural differences and barriers. I find the apparent lack of resolution skills of the FA to be a bit disturbing.

    One thing that I kind of disagree with in Matthew’s blog post is that it should not matter if he was in BusinessFirst or a 1K or (almost) million miler. Those items maybe give some credibility after the fact, but this type of treatment should not happen to anybody. It’s very easy for a “commoner” to get left in the dust in a situation like this.

    • MathFox says:

      What I have seen is that first and business do not have the oldest and most experienced FAs (they know how to arrange tasks so that they have the best jobs), but rookies are not sent in either. It usually is the FAs with a few years of experience that you’ll see there. On narrowbodies business may be served by more experienced FAs (smaller crews.)

  27. This is no doubt a result of TSA policy/regulations, but it does not matter as the ChiComs likely have all the details that anyone could want anyhow.

  28. Steve says:

    Brett, you are in DEEP trouble for taking all those pictures. You should have a life time sentence by now. Can’t they worry about OTHER things?

    It just goes to show… United an a last rate airline. The fact that he pointed out that it was a LEGACY United Crew said EVERYTHING. They were and ARE awful!!

    United is the LAST airline that I ever consider in my choices. There is not enough Continental in the United mix.

  29. drybean says:

    Matt should tell his story on Good Morning America, Letterman, and the rest. You could do all pax a service by forcing UA to listen to the outcry such exposure would generate. No photos in the freindly skies!

    • Ben says:

      Matthew doesnt’t seem to be having much of a problem getting UA to listen to him. In the follow-up that he posted, he states that UA has been in contact with him and has listened to his side, promised an investigation, and expressed appreciation for his continued business. He stated they did not offer an apology and he does not expect one.

      • I saw that in his subsequent post and don’t understand the apology notion. Why couldn’t they apologize for the inconvenience, without any admisison of guilt or responsibility, regardless of who was “right” and who was “wrong”? I would certainly expect that if I were him.

  30. jim says:

    maybe you and matthew think you are more imporant than you realllllly are.

  31. Chicago Chris says:

    As a professional photojournalist I encounter these problems almost daily. In this case, it seems like the FA overreacted, but he poked the bear by using the word terrorist, which is a red flag word. He also may have thrown himself under the bus by revealing his profession.

    United’s photography policy is pretty poorly worded for the common man, but as I can tell you can take personal photos anywhere, even on board. That last sentence about it being prohibited ends with except as permitted by United. Going back to the first sentence United allows personal photography so therefore on board photos are allowed for personal use….that said once he revealed himself as a travel writer the FA could infer the photos were for his writing and therefore in violation of the photo policy.

    It’s a terrible way to go about things and I think we’re looking at a 75-25 blame here (mostly to the FA).

    Hopefully this incident will encourage United’s lawyers to revisit the issue and write the policy with clearer language both passengers and employees can understand.

  32. Robin J says:

    I had my first two flights on United for some years yesterday, using Lufthansa miles for a first class trip Boston-Houston-Mexico City. I always take a pocket camera with me on trips, and took pictures of the takeoff out of the window.
    Later in the flight I found a warning that cameras were among the gadgets that could not be used until 10,000′ had been reached, which I had never heard before. I took a copy of the Hemispheres magazine with me, but I did not read United’s “rules” about photography there until I saw this story.
    Perhaps the personnel were ex-Continental, although it was an A320 BOS-IAH.
    On the few occasions over the last 20 years when I have been seen taking photographs by airline staff – including the Singapore A380 inaugural SYD-SIN, where it was positively encouraged, I have never been stopped, except on the ground in Kuwait, where I was warned not to let airport police see what I was doing.

  33. Faisal Ghias says:

    Huh, I posted a link to this on twitter, and got a comment from United. Didn’t expect that.

  34. JayB says:

    Would be interesting to know if anyone has put together an informational brief on the do’s and don’ts or the limits on photography for the airline travler, both in the US and when flying to a foreign destination. Both on photography of things in the aircraft and things one sees out the window.

    I used to think this was simple, coming as I do from a time before the IPhones, the internet, and 9/11. It wasn’t even then, of course. Way back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, then the dawn of the Sky Marshall program and almost daily instances of, or attempts to skyjack, I managed to have my out-of-the-window picture-taking enroute to Miami on a Southern Airways flight subjected to much flight crew anxiety and Sky Marshall questioning as to why photography plus a compass and Esso road maps wasn’t just a little bit suspicious.

    But, I still take hundreds of pictures on my trips. Even sometimes forgetting that during takeoffs and landings, I ought not be pointing and clicking my digital camera at the Washington Monument. (I’ll bet even some pilots enjoy the view, too, and get a little off the required “river route.”) But, I really try to be respectful, courteous, and decent to all my fellow passengers. And, of course, with privilege, I have to be responsible.

    Neverthelss, it would to nice read some more about how much power the airline captain truly has in these matters? Absolute? Help me understand the limits here on my free speech; others’ right to privacy; appreciation for those people whose religious beliefs might call for no “graven image;” limits on my ability to freely photograph from the air any military installation or other things the government might consider sensitive; any restrictions that the airline or the aircraft manufacturer might consider of a proprietary nature or something to call into question an infringement of a patent; and, of course, my Constitutional Amendment rights (oh, brother!).

    While I’m at it. You UA pilots. If your aircraft can transmit ATC communication on Channel 9, please turn it on. I’m not going to sue to get your pilot’s license revoked, even if it sounds like you might be a real jerk, giving the controllers a rough time. And you flying me what looks like a little close to that other jet outside the window landing there at SFO. Or, allowing trubulence over those beautiful Rockies. OK, if you must, but please, turn on channel 9!

  35. BarryATL says:

    I am going to point out that rail fans have been fighting this fight against arbitrary rules against photography since 9/11. For a long time a picture could not be made at a train station, or of any train. Photographers would be on a bridge taking pictures of trains as they go by and the police would be called by the train engineers. People were removed from train stations for taking pictures. I am not just talking about big city train stations… we are talking about the ones that are out west in the middle of nowhere. A local “sheriff” would be called out and then the person turned over to the FBI. It took a lot of years to get all of this worked out. Just making an observation.

  36. SA*AD says:

    Banning photography is not without precedent, if you’re a secretive or oppressive society extremely touchy about “strategic installations.” Supposedly you can’t take pics at Moscow’s airports but they find their way on to the web just the same. Similarly, few cruise lines publicly offer tours of the engine room anymore, right?

    The FA overreacted but what is missing is how old/senior she is:
    Did she personally know any of her peers killed on 9-11? Same plane (763) flying out of one of the same airports (EWR) involved in the attack on the same airline? Maybe a stretch 11.5 years later and, again, she overreacted but the similarities for her might, repeat MIGHT, have been a key.

    Competing airlines don’t need pics, necessarily. They buy tix on other airlines to sample, touch and feel the competing product. Marketing on the other guy’s websites sets up the tease, they sample it in person to fill in the gaps.

    United has always DEEPLY felt it was deliberately targeted as part of the attacks and not merely the weapon of most convenience for 9-11. Pics of seats, not so much, but how many ROWS to sensitive parts of the cabin is a concern for them. Take all the pics and vids you want out of the windows but recording the interior, galleys, lavs and other cabin components, in their frame of mind, absolutely not.

    Understandable, again, but the treatment given to the customer because of it, most certainly not. If it’s that big of a deal, make an announcement during boarding instead of leaving it to fine print and cabin confrontations.

    • There is no law in Russia that prevents taking pictures in the open to public areas of Russian airports and train stations. This was recently clarified additionally by the authorities. However, ground personnel is largely unaware of the fact and might think it is illegal and try to stop you. You just have to be polite in pointing that it is legal.

    • actually, UA 93 on 9/11/01 from EWR-SFO was a 757.

  37. yo says:

    About 15 or so years ago, I was on a FinnAir flight into St. Petersburg, as we landed, the FA announced that we couldn’t take any pictures of the airport. As we were passing dilapidated, rotted out wooden structures and various Soviet surplus decaying everywhere, I had to think…”Sure would be terrible to steal this 1951 technology!”

  38. I’ll bet that wouldn’t have happened on either SQ or CX.

    US legacy carriers have no understanding of service, or appreciation for one’s customers, and the moral of this story would seem to be to avoid United at all costs.

    What that lying FA, and wimpy captain, did was illogical and inexcusable. And, yes, the word used by Matthew was stupid, but not justification for what happened.

  39. Sempir says:

    Won’t be long before you are not allowed to say the word “battery” on a 787!

  40. Laura La says:

    Having the general public know how many rows are in each area of the cabin is a “problem”?!! Then why can anyone who
    knows how to book a flight online look at seat maps for any United flight? How can seatguru.com exist? I’m not buying it, SA*AD.

    • SA*AD says:

      Seat maps and seatguru don’t necessarily show where other fixtures or built-in components in the cabin are that might aid or impede hostile activity.

      Not a single seat map I’ve seen shows where emergency equipment is located or what might be in those storage areas (they differ by airline). Only the exit rows are displayed but not fire extinguishers (heavy enough to use as a weapon) or defibrillator equipment (can use to stun as much as revive someone).

      On 757s in particular, cabin designs vary, i.e. the coffee station next to the R2 doorway on United that might not be there on Delta. Or the two seats practically in the doorway of L2 and R2 that some other airlines might not have. The US A321 I flew to Denver didn’t have that despite being a similarly sized airplane.

      Finally, seat design might actually play a part if we’re talking one of the premium “pods.” Comfy as hell but how easy are they really to get in and out of in an emergency, something a hostile might want to know so he can either act quickly or shut someone down trying to interfere.

      How many rows to anything sensitive, what’s in or next to those rows and how much interference will it cause?

      • regardless of photography, any of these things you mentioned above can be easily ascertained in person with the purchase of a $300 ticket. the airlines’ own websites offer plenty of pretty pictures of their business and first class pods for marketing purposes so i’m not buying that as a security risk either.

        • SA*AD says:

          When you go house hunting do you remember every detail, every configuration, every feature, exactly where it is, its orientation, what’s nearby and how convenient it is to access or use? Can you remember every kitchen layout for example?

          I doubt it. You need pictures. The only difference is that buying a house is usually not a threat to public safety.

          Same thing with a car. Pics are nice but gotta sit in the thing at least, drive it even better, to get a true feel for comfort, convenience, handling and yes, getting in and out of the beast (F-150 or Viper?).

          AA’s new F seat swivels. Few others do that and most pics/vids won’t show you HOW to make it swivel, only that it does! Need a ticket to try it and maybe a pic to remember how IF you’re planning something other than just enjoying the ride.

          Airline marketing schemes and glossies focus on the bells and whistles, not where the life rafts, fire axes, first aid kits and other emergency equipment are located. Matter of fact, those things are deliberately “blended” so passengers won’t notice them and become that much more worried about their safety. Show me the airline website that actually points out where a single piece of emergency equipment is located other than the exit row and maybe a defibrillator.

          I might buy your not buying it then.

  41. Robin J says:

    Can anyone show a single example where photography of, near, or inside a plane was used to assist in the sabotage of a commercial flight?
    Was there any such evidence, for example, in relation to the 9/11 attacks?

    • Richard says:

      After September 11 many computers seized from Al Queda operatives had photos of the interiors of aircraft, not just United, but airlines world wide. These photos, it is believed, were used to stage the attacks on September 11, and possibly future attacks. So taking pictures of the interior of aircraft is considered to be a security issue.

      However this whole situation could have been easily avoided if the gentleman had introduced himself first to the flight crew, explained he was a travel writer, and asked permission to take a picture of the seat and other amenities. I bet the permission would have been granted, and if not, he would not have raised as much suspicion nor have been kicked off the plane. A little common sense and courtesy here from the photographer would have gone a long way.

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