Some Airlines Saying ‘No’ to Onboard Photography


Most people in today’s society have a mobile phone. Most mobile phones have cameras. Anyone and everyone has become an on-the-scene photojournalist, reporting on everything from major news events to the odd and crazy.

Some of these picture-worthy events take place on everyday flights. Shutter-happy passengers, snapping or even video recording the woman on the next aisle over acting unusual or a fellow passenger being disruptive. It’s undeniable that we are curious beings, and want to document and share events we witness. But not everyone is pleased citizen photojournalists.


A report published Wednesday on NPR makes the observation that more and more carriers are saying ‘no’ to certain types of on board photography. In fact, many airlines have published rules banning photography, unless it’s personal. That means you’re barred from having your mobile phone’s lens pointed toward the woman in the back of the cabin singing a Whitney Houston number (make note of the flight crew’s ‘no pictures’ order).

It’s perfectly understandable that one shouldn’t be snapping photos or capturing video of strangers — especially at such close proximity — but is it out of line to condemn photography of an individual who is clearly seeking attention? After all, it’s a free country, right?

Sure, but so long as you’re on board an airliner, you’re considered a visitor on private property, regardless of how much you’ve paid for your fare. Arbitrary rules set forth by the airline are expected to be followed. Failure to comply could lead to you being found guilty of a trespassing charge – should authorities decide to take things to that level.

It should be noted, however, that an airline cannot, in any way, force you to remove what you’ve captured or confiscate your device. Nor can they stop you from uploading a video you’ve taken to YouTube. The case is different if law enforcement has a warrant or sufficient evidence of a crime.


“If it’s just a matter of something that’s embarrassing to an airline, it’s going to be hard for them to get it suppressed — to get it taken down,” said Ryan Calo of the University of Washington Law school.

An airline’s bottom-line is to make the airline look good and make money, and scores of police officers escorting a rowdy passenger off the flight most certainly does not look good.

There’s flexibility when it comes to how receptive an airline crew would be to a passenger photographing/filming a noteworthy event, but the best policy, of course, is to just use your best judgement in your particular situation.

Image credits: McDonnell Douglas MD-80, American Airlines, looking longer from a different angle by wbaiv, Old style in-flight movies by Lars Plougmann, Interior of American Airlines 737 Photo i011 by Grant Wickes by Grant Wickes

  • gochugogi

    Can’t imagine a much more boring location for photography.

  • -

    “You are not allowed to take pictures” and you are not allowed to tell me how to do every small movement I do. You are a transport service, not my mom.

  • everythingisboring

    you definitely can’t look out the window, nothing but the earth below you, and everyone knows how that place is so boring.

  • Neoracer Xox

    Its not a free country any more, its a fascist police state.

  • Neoracer Xox

    oh no, now your a photo terrorist jihadist with a camera

  • Burnin Biomass

    Just like any place of private business, they can say if they allow photography or not. It’s their right. Plus, it sounds like personal photography is still ok, so I’m good.

  • bob cooley

    It’s a free country, but its also a private airline, and while you are on it, you are on private property.

    The airline may not be allowed to confiscate your camera, but your right to post images taken illegally is not absolute.

    Sure you can do it, but it can lead to a lawsuit (you don’t want to be sued by a company as large as an airline).

    If the airlines decides to contact the authorities, you’ll initially be detained by TSA, then the police. On top of it, its the FAA, which can levy fines, and because its tied to a flight it can easily invoke the Dept. of Homeland Security. It seems unlikely that they would go to these lengths, but you can find
    yourself in legal hot water for not obeying the flight crew and airline

    Not saying I agree with the policy, but law is law, and its not always on your side.

    A great reference for photographers’ rights in general is Bert Krages’s PDF (no affiliation with him, I’ve just carried a copy of it in my bag for years)

  • Shootallnewsworthyhappenings

    I use these photographer’s rights just about everywhere I go. Most of the time it’s to gain an additional few seconds while the rent a cop figures out WTF just happened.
    If something goes down on a flight-I’ll be taking pictures. I suspect more than a few others will be too.
    Can you imagine the likes of any of the great photojournalists cowtowing to these rules? Rules made simply so an industry can’t be caught doing something wrong?
    Big Agra just got laws passed to stop undercover video revealing practices in meat processing plants. This is more of that sort of law.

    Roll over if you want-not this photographer.

  • bob cooley

    Okay, tell me of a free-er country…

  • bob cooley

    In fact I can imagine photojournalists obeying the law. I was a full-time photojournalist for over 15 years, worked for the AP, and directly for literally dozens of magazines and newspapers. I’ve also been tear-gassed, spent a weekend in the county tank, etc.- all the ‘fun’ stuff that can come about when police interests conflict with journalistic fervor.

    One of the things that keeps a photojournalist credentialed is the agreements made with law enforcement (especially in a city like NYC, where getting credentialed is no small task).

    And I’m not saying don’t shoot, I would too; I’m merely saying be prepared to pay the consequences if rightful legal action is taken.

    It’s cool and all to say “I won’t roll over”, but when you are at the end of a lawsuit or in cuffs, don’t be surprised and act like your rights have been violated.

  • -

    China, Mexico, Russia, Spain, France ( not by far.. ) but practically everywhere else.

  • Burnin Biomass

    No country is free. Total freedom is anarchy.

  • Ralph Hightower

    Geez! I don’t see how my disposable film camera will muck up the plane’s electronics. But I’ve used disposables to take photos from the window and I got a great photo of O’Hare’s light tunnel from a disposable. But this was pre 9/11. Still, I found flying in 1994 more of a chore than an experience.

  • -

    Total freedom is anarchy, but we are in the other extreme, the thing is to find balance and harmony actually, and to give up privacy and freedom doesn’t help at all.

  • shootallnewsworthy

    Thanks for the heads up. I’ll take my chances.
    Corporate protection laws need to be challenged-not accepted.

  • Burnin Biomass

    No, we are not on the other extreme. See NK for that.

    You have to give up some privacy and freedoms to live in any decent society. Its silly to think otherwise.

    The US has a very good balance. It’s not perfect because no country is perfect.

  • Mythlin

    I’ll take pictures if I damn well want too, thank you very much.

  • Thomas Hawk

    And some airlines have bands playing live at 30,000 feet in the air and how can you NOT take a photo of THAT.

  • Richard Ford

    Australia, New Zealand, Canada…

  • peterblaise

    In the related article at NPR: “… Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel at the National Press Photographers Association, says … the First Amendment is “pretty generous” in this regard. “Even though the Press are singled out by the very text of the Constitution, most of enjoy many of the same rights that the press do

    The US Constitution says NOTHING about freedom only for full-time
    employees of newspapers or broadcast news organizations or whatever
    Mickey thinks “… the press …” means.

    “… the press …” means, and “… no law … abridging the freedom
    of speech, or of the press …” means that ANYONE can print and
    distribute whatever they want, and in support of that, anyone can
    collect information in order to have something to print and share.

    At the time of the writing of the Constitution, radio-wave broadcast
    and photography and audio recording of any sort were not even imagined,
    but later statute and case law recognized those new technologies as
    evolving extensions of “… the press …”, of which anyone can take
    advantage without legal restrictions.

    And never ever was there the expectation that freedom of the press
    was ONLY for full time employees of news gathering and reporting
    organizations, the modern capital P Press.

    To be sure, also think of the 14th Amendment demanding that states
    give equal protection and due process to ALL within their jurisdiction,
    not just “… the press …”, with a capital or small P.

    Mickey “National Press Photographers Association general counsel ” Osterreicher does not know this?

    More importantly to me is that there is nothing in any statute or
    case law extending from the Constitution and Amendments that permits an
    Airline to declare their publicly accessible airplanes as a
    mini-Constitution-free zone outside the jurisdiction of the US
    Constitution, the 1st Amendment, the 14th Amendment, and all that.

    One would think, especially after the Boston Marathon Massacre, and
    the bounty of information gleaned from citizen photography, that NO ONE
    would ever think of prohibiting photography anywhere, ever again.

    Photography is free speech, copyright, and nobody has superior rights
    over somebody else’s photography — all Constitutionally protected.

    Photographers are the only one’s who go out and shoot something, and bring it back alive.

    Let’s all carry our cameras with us everywhere and shoot everything all the time!

    Love and hugs,
    Peter Blaise

  • Mantis

    Yeah, flying 30,000 above the Earth at 500mph. How booooring.

  • Mantis

    Basically all of Western & Northern Europe, and Canada.

  • Mantis

    China, Mexico, and Russia?
    C’mon now.

  • Mantis

    Pretty much this.
    If I don’t want you taking photos inside my house, you don’t have the right to defy the rules inside my private property.

  • bob cooley

    Peter, I applaud your enthusiasm, but the thing you are missing here is that the rights to privacy and private property trump the rights of the free press, there is a ton of case-law that reinforces this.

    A privately owned space that is opened to the public that has no posted or stated policies in place stating otherwise are considered “semi-public”. In a semi-public space, you are permitted to photograph, record, etc. Until you are asked to stop. At that point you must (by law) stop. If the airline was to state at the beginning of the flight “no photography is permitted” (although I’ve NEVER heard this in 20 years of flying) no photography would be permitted during the entire duration of the flight.

    In questioning Mickey Osterreicher’s knowledge; He was an award-winning photojournalist before going to law-school, and has practiced for over a decade – being the counsel for the NPPA, I’d stack his knowledge of these topics and the nuances often found deeper in the law as definitive subject matter expertise.

    The First Amendment is a vital part of our culture, but it doesn’t trump all other laws.

  • Scott Mains

    Finland is pretty perfect.

  • Aleksandar Aleksić

    check out east europe (specially balkan from my experience)

  • rlevy

    Peter, as a photojournalist for 25+ years, I would add that you are also blurring the definitions of copyright vs the First Amendment. Whatever you shoot is your copyright. You own the picture.

    But if you took it on private property (an airline) and violated their rules, or try to publish it or make money or do something in public with the photos, you will be subject to laws protecting others from displaying the photos.

  • dbw1977

    Actually, I’ve been all over a lot of the world and being a “flag-waving patriot” type I’d say I’ve felt free-er in a lot of places. Granted, they technically aren’t, but in a lot of areas of daily life the govt felt less intrusive. Going to Iceland for instance, walking through the parks there were no signs saying “don’t do this” “don’t walk there”. There were a few signs that said things like “please don’t stand on the moss, it’s bad for it”, but for the most part you were free to roam. Simple example, but try to walk freely in Yellowstone…

  • dbw1977

    Agreed. Honestly, regardless of whether the oversized lady next to you is drooling on herself or not, it’s just rude.

  • bob cooley

    Ironically, I just read a report that the US is no longer in the top 10 ranking in freedom from an economics standpoint (note: economics isn’t just money, it’s also the judiciary, government influence, etc.). We are actually now #12. But out of the 195 nations that are out there we are still in the cream of the crop.

    So I have to amend my original comment from a year ago – we aren’t the free-est, but we are still pretty damn free (and far from a ‘fascist police state’ – which is what I was replying to).