Thursday, June 9, 2016

Flying this summer? Be careful what you photograph

This recap of airline photo policies has been updated to reflect the current policies as we enter the summer of 2016.

If you are among the millions of people who will be taking to the skies during the summer travel season that is just getting underway, it might be a good idea to review your airline's policy about photography before heading to the airport.

United 737 departs SEA
A major dust-up in 2013 brought this issue to the forefront when Matthew Klint, who writes for the blog, was unceremoniously thrown off a trans-Atlantic United Airlines 767-300 after he used his iPhone to snap a picture of the display screen in the seat back in front of him.

A flight attendant (F/A) rushed over and demanded he stop, which he did, but it didn't end there. You can read Matthew's story here.

Over the intervening three years, incidents involving travelers who were confronted for taking pictures in - or even of - airplanes brought the issue back around. In one such case, a traveler was chastised for snapping a picture of an American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) plane that was sitting at the gate at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport (DCA). Arash Shirazi was waiting for his flight Los Angeles (LAX) when he decided to take a picture of the plane. A gate agent who saw him demanded that he stop and said he would be noting Shirazi's "security breach" in his travel records.

In fairness to American, Washington, D.C. exists in an atmosphere that is highly politically charged and where security concerns are paramount. It is quite possible that it was airport rules and not airline policies that prohibited or discouraged photography from the terminal, from which one can literally see many of the city's monuments and the U.S. Capitol. I did not receive a response from officials at DCA when I asked them to comment.

ANA Dreamliner arrives in Seattle
As to photography on aircraft, I am an active travel writer and have taken dozens, if not hundreds, of pictures of and aboard airliners operated by All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Iberia Airlines, now-defunct US Airways, Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, and others. I've used everything from the camera in my phone to my full-sized digital SLR. I have never tried to hide what I was doing, and no one has ever said a word to me about it.

I was initially shocked when I heard of Klint and others being scolded or worse because, virtually every time I fly, I see lots of my fellow passengers snapping away. So, with the summer travel season coming up, it seemed appropriate to update this list of airline photo policies.

It is important to understand: There is no FAA regulation that prohibits photography on commercial aircraft. FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer confirmed this, and that each airline sets its own policy. Accordingly, there are bound to be differences from one airline to the next.

As to those policies:

The United Airlines' (NYSE:UAL) policy that was in place when Klint was ejected from his flight started out clearly enough but then took a twist that left it a bit confusing and allowed for a fair bit of interpretation. Since then, it has been simplified to reflect the basic principles of "Common courtesy, common sense."

United spokesperson Karen May said the policy in effect since May 2015 is: "The use of small cameras or mobile devices for photography and video is permitted on board, provided you keep the purpose of your photography and video to capturing personal events. Photographing or recording other customers or airline personnel without their express consent is prohibited."

The policies of the other airlines contacted by TheTravel Pro are equally straightforward.

American Airlines (NYSE:AMR) has a clear, uncomplicated policy that is detailed in its in-flight magazine. "The use of still and video cameras, film or digital, is permitted only for recording of personal events," the magazine says in its 2016 editions, adding that "Unauthorized photography of video recording of airline personnel, other customers, aircraft equipment or procedures is prohibited."

Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) also has a common-sense policy that is published in its in-flight magazine.

"We understand you may want to document your travel on Southwest Airlines. Want to photograph and/or record Southwest Airlines Customers or Employees? Let them know first! The use of cameras and mobile devices is permitted onboard to capture personal events but can never interfere with the safety of a flight and should always respect others’ privacy." the policy states.

The current photo policy at Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL) is also unambiguous. "The guidance we provide to employees about customer photography [is], 'It is common for customers to photograph and video all aspects of their travel experience. In most instances there is nothing unlawful about the use of these photos/videos. However, it is Delta’s policy that customers refrain from recording or photographing other customers or Delta employees without prior permission'," spokesperson Ashton Morrow confirmed in an email. Again: common courtesy, common sense.

Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) "[P]ermits passengers to take photos or videos on its planes [and] are welcome to share photos of their positive experiences on Alaska on Facebook or Twitter," spokesperson Bobbie Egan said in a May 2015 email. However, Alaska does have other policies that passengers should keep in mind when deciding whether particular photography or video filming is appropriate. "For example, passengers should not take photos when crewmembers ask them to stow equipment in preparation for takeoff or landing. Passengers should also be respectful of other passengers on the plane and the Alaska crewmembers." Again, common courtesy, common sense.

Virgin America's policy in 2016 is essentially unchanged from 2013. The carrier "actively encourage(s) our guests to use their cameras and post their experience on Virgin America," through the airlines' #myVXexperience campaign, spokesperson Sean Harris confirmed.

Photo courtesy JetBlue
JetBlue has no formal photo policy but instead trusts its employees to evaluate matters on a case-by-case basis. "Our crewmembers 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," spokesperson Tamara Young confirmed in 2016, while emphasizing that passengers are expected to abide by crewmember instructions. "Failure to do so, or otherwise demonstrating a potential risk of escalation or confrontation with customers or crewmembers in flight, may result in a customer being removed from the aircraft," the communique concluded.

To provide a more global view, I also contacted several non-U.S. carriers about their policies.

British Airways trusts in the good judgement of its passengers. "We know customers delight in taking travel pictures and they are welcome to do so," spokesperson Caroline Titmuss told me. "We do ask that any filming is done with the least amount of disruption to the other customers for their own safety and comfort. We would also ask that customers do not take photographs or record other customers or our employees without their prior permission."

German carrier Lufthansa has no specific policy in place. "We just ask our passengers to comply with the rights of our [other] passengers," such as asking permission before taking a photo of someone you don't know, airline spokesperson Nils Haupt responded for my original article.

Australian airline Qantas trusts its passengers to use their good judgement. "As long as passengers comply with electronic devices policy for TTL [taxi, take-off, and landing], there are no rules per se," airline spokesperson Sarah Algar told me at the time of my original article in 2013. She added that passengers should ask permission before taking pictures of flight crew or other passengers.

Small electronics are generally allowed to remain on from gate to gate since a change in FAA regulations in late 2013.

Likewise, U.A.E.-based Emirates and Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) also trust their passengers' to use common courtesy and common sense.

However, the ease of finding those photo policies before boarding the aircraft, at which point it would be virtually impossible to obtain any permission that might be required, could be problematic. While every airline's PR department responded quickly to my inquiry, the airlines' policies were not always easy to locate using other sources.

For example, while United's policy is contained in the in-flight magazine Hemispheres, two searches of its web site using the words "photograph" and "photography" at the time of my original article yielded eight results, none of which related to in-flight photography. Now, though, the carrier does publish the guidance on its web site.

Common themes

In reviewing these policies, I saw some common themes that should provide some useful guidance:
  • Taking pictures for personal use is OK as long as it doesn't interfere with the safety of the flight. That means you won't be allowed to do anything that could be construed as interfering with the flight crew.
  • No pictures of other passengers without asking.
  • No pictures of the flight crew without permission and, in some cases, not at all.
  • If you're a commercial photographer who will be selling your work, you will need to obtain permission from the airline in advance. 
In short, common courtesy and common sense should serve you well if you plan to take pictures in flight. However, if in doubt, ask. And if you are asked to stop, do it immediately and without argument. It is not worth taking the chance that, like Klint, you could find yourself back in the terminal, waiting for the next plane to your destination.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise indicated
Click on photos to view larger size images


1 comment:

  1. Australian airline Qantas trusts its passengers to use their sensible judgement.


Comments on this website are moderated and will not appear automatically. They must pertain to the topic of the article and may be edited for content and/or clarity.