Photographers face legal issues while photographing planes

By Jamie Joseph

Bill Madeira and a friend are local amateur photographers that like taking pictures of planes. In 2005, they were taking pictures of planes landing at Philadelphia airport from a public road when he was approached by a police officer who asked for ID’s.

Madeira and his friend gave the officer his ID. Seeming satisfied, the officer went away.

Fifteen minutes later, four squad cars and a helicopter surrounded them and put Madeira and his friend in the back of a cruiser. When asked why they were being arrested, the officer replied “Don’t you know what’s going on in this country?” This was probably a reference to the September 11 attacks and war on terror.

Madeira and his friend were held until midnight without being given the chance to call a lawyer or being told why they were being held. Madeira contacted the local chapter of the ACLU and reported the incident. The city settled out of court giving them $2,500.00 each.

But why did police arrest them in the first place? There is no law, federal, state or local regarding taking photos of airplanes from a public space. There are laws restricting photography of maintenance factories, oil refineries and other so called ‘9/11 targets.’ But since 9/11, even with the development of Homeland Security and the passing of the Patriot Act, there is no mention that taking photos of planes is illegal or should even be considered a threat.

Homeland Security policy makes no mention of a ban on photographing of airliners or airports, although certain landmark sites and federal buildings are off limits. The DHS notes that while they have no specific rules against taking photos at the airport or any public access, it does strongly discourage anybody from taking pictures of TSA employees and it’s security area, specifically the x-ray machines. The only rule here is that any photography must not interfere with the operations of the TSA at the airport. Also, airports around the country have their own rules about where and when photography is allowed.

Philadelphia airport has certain rules against photography and video recording. For photography, it must not interfere with the operations of the airport including and especially the TSA, as mentioned by the DHS, but also no photos taken at Philadelphia airport may be used for commercial use. Does this include using the photos for one’s personal blog or website like airliners.net or phlairline.com? Under the airport rules, the answer is no. But video of anything in the airport must have specific permission from the airport Special Events and Photography coordinator, Richard McMullin.

But still, there is no law prohibiting photographers from taking pictures of planes from a public space. But what about from inside the plane?

Many airlines have policies that basically prohibit any sort of recording or still photography. United Airlines website says ‘The use of still and video cameras, film or digital, including any cellular or other devices that have this capability, is permitted only for recording of personal events.’ It also goes on to say other passengers must concede to being recorded and any recording of the staff must be given permission to by United Airlines. The highest authority on any in-air aircraft is the pilot.

Earlier this year, while boarding in New York, a United Airlines pilot refused to hear the story of Matthew Klint, a travel writer and on this flight, a business class passenger taking photos of his seat, was told to get off the flight, destination Istanbul, Turkey.

Klint was embarrassed and filed a report with United Airlines. Not hearing back, he took his story to his website and soon, news outlets were picking up the story across the country. United Airlines has since responded and are working with Klint to fix the problem.

In an interview with NPR in 2005, Brian Roehrkasse a spokesman for the DHS, says photos can be used surveillance for organizations like al-Qaeda to conspire and attack the U.S.

Even if that makes sense to some, it would be nearly impossible to not find a picture of the statue of liberty, or the White House on the internet. Even a plane landing is a sight that looks the same no matter where in the world its landing, at least it does to me. Probably looks the same from the inside too, just a hunch.

So where does that leave this issue? If I want to take my new Canon 7D camera and go down to the airport area and take photos of planes, there is a possibility I may be thrown stopped and frisked like Robert Cheney was, another person who was also stopped by police by Philadelphia airport while he was outside taking photos of airplanes from a public road.  Should regulations be created to guide photographers or videographers about what they can and can’t photograph?

With cameras now available on pretty much every phone, and so many people flying, I say ‘yes’.  Both professional and amateur photographers need more well-publicized guidelines.  However, these regulations should be consistent with the rights afforded us by the First Amendment. Being arrested on a public street, (as Mr. Madeira was), for photographing a plane landing runs afoul of that freedom.  Having clearer guidelines about where and what is a threat to public or national security will not only help shutterbugs but conserve law enforcement’s time and resources.