Travel Photo Thursday: The “Those Photos Don’t Fly” Zone

Travel Photo Thursday: The “Those Photos Don’t Fly” Zone

(This column normally provides tips for taking better photos. But this week we cover one place where pressing the shutter button could get you in big trouble: Onboard a commercial flight.)

United 777 InteriorTravel writer Matthew Klint recently learned a new lesson in photography the hard way: Using his iPhone to take a photo of the back of the seat in front of him on an Istanbul-bound United Airlines flight got him kicked off the plane.

Fortunately for Klint, the plane was still on ground, not cruising along at 35,000+ feet above the planet. He eventually arrived in Istanbul, and the only injuries he suffered was to his feelings, his wallet, and his travel schedule. (Photo at left courtesy of Angelo DeSantis.)

Regardless of whether United acted appropriately in Klint’s case, travelers need to know when it is okay to take photos on board an aircraft, when is it not, who sets the rules, and hot to learn what they are before breaking them.

According to Klint and this story by Harriet Baskas for the NBC News Website, United Airlines has a written policy that permits passengers to take photos or videos of “personal events,” but precludes them from making video or audio recordings, or taking photos of other customers without their “express prior consent.” And shooting photos or videos, or making an audio recording of United’s “airline personnel, aircraft equipment or procedures is always prohibited.”

A flight attendant apparently directed Klint to a page in United’s in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, where that policy appears. Although I’ve read that publication on numerous United flights, I’ve never seen the airlines’ “Those Photos Don’t  Fly Zone” policy in it. Nor could I find it in the electronic version of Hemispheres which is available as a free iPad app.

A United representative told Baskas that the policy restricting on-board photography has been in place since 2010 “[f]or reasons of service and security,” and the policy is mentioned in an aviation forum posting from October of that year. However, a link to the policy on the United Website mentioned in that forum no longer functions, and I could not find the policy searching United’s Website while writing this story.

Travel blogger Darren Booth was stopped by U.S. Air Marshals after deplaning at JFK, apparently because a passenger had told the flight crew that Booth had been taking photos and recording video in-flight.

A February 25, 2009 story by Thomas Hawk on his site, Thomas Hawk’s Digital Connection, quoted an American Airlines’ policy restricting on-board photography and video recording that read similar to United’s. However, the page on the American’s Website to which he referred appears to no longer include that policy. But a link from his story to an online forum said that the policy was set out in American’s in-flight magazine back in 2007.

According to this story, photography aboard commercial airlines was banned temporarily after 9/11, but as of April, 2000, there were no FAA rules prohibiting it.

In a quick check of Websites for Delta, Jet Blue, Southwest,Virgin America Websites, I found no statement of airline policy on on-board photography.

So what should you do when it comes to shooting photos aboard an airplane?

Here’s my advice on what to do before you take such  photos:

  • Eurostar 2009 IMG_4541Assume the airline has a policy like United’s.
  • Check the airline inflight magazine for a written rule on taking still photos or video.
  • Ask a flight attendant if the airline has a policy covering on board photography.
  • Ask passengers or airline personnel if you may take their photos.
  • Leave your camera or smartphone in your carry-on bag, and forget about shooting photos or video during the trip.

And, if you want to avoid this and other issues involving modern-day air travel, take the train! (But of course, the only photos taken aboard should be of you, drinking champagne.)

(Click on an image to enlarge to full-size. Visit Budget Travelers Sandbox for more of this week’s Travel Photo Thursday shots.)

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9 Replies to “Travel Photo Thursday: The “Those Photos Don’t Fly” Zone”

  1. I’ve been following this story, and I appreciate your write up on it. Honestly, I think the whole situation had little to do with United’s policy and mostly to do with a bad flight attendant. Unfortunate!

  2. I found Klint’s story very distressing! Who hasn’t or doesn’t take pictures on all airplanes? A lot of people want to document the first step of their trip. The answer to your questions, who sets the rules, also shows a very sad state of travel on airplanes today. The flight attendant, in my opinion, was completely out of line in her action. Great tips, its just too bad we have to have them!

  3. Good write up. Surely taking a photo of the back of the seat in front is not deemed to be taking it of a flight attendant or other passenger. This really frightens me. I have taken a photo of the screen on the back of the seat in front also!

  4. A huge over reaction on United’s part if you ask me. They’re not known for their customer service. Just read “United Breaks Guitars“.

    I always bring my phone to shoot the landscape from the plane -and have done so without incident.

    What exactly are they afraid of?

  5. I’ve taken plenty of shots out the window and of my own seat area because I’m kind of an aviation geek. You should see my closeup shots of airline seatbelt buckles, just in case I need it for a blog post. I’ll have to think twice the next time I try to get a wide shot of the cabin!

    As an aside, I work in computer security and photography bans in the name of security are a joke. Bad guys can simply use a hidden camera, takes notes, or remember the things that they see with their eyes. I wonder who ran the threat risk calculations on that policy decision?

  6. I’ve never had a problem taking photos on flights, especially photos of seats, snacks, drinks and food or out windows. But then I don’t take or try to take photos of anyone other than the two of us. (Think how you would feel if some stranger aimed a camera at you without first providing some credentials and explanation of why he/she was doing so.) I do suspect that with the number of point-and-shoot pocket-sized cameras and cameras in phones, that dozens of photos are being taken on all flights, written rules or not.

  7. I missed this story. I always haul out my camera to take photos of the tarmac and the landscape below, once we are airborne. I seldom take shots of anything else. The food is usually so bad who would want to remember it? Then again, that could be a good blog post!

  8. Oh my goodness, I can’t believe they kicked him off that flight. I admit that I am guilty of sneaking photos even when the “No Electronics during Take Off and Landing” rule is applicable. For instance, I really, really wanted a shot of Uluru from the air. Who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, my kids kept loudly saying, “Mom, you’re not supposed to be doing that!” I guess I’m not a good role model. Oh well.

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