When things go wrong on an airline flight, a picture is worth a thousand words — and a video can be worth even more.
That’s become evident over the last several months, amid a string of viral videos showing passengers getting booted off flights, altercations between crew and passengers and the United Airlines passenger dragged off a plane.
With smartphone cameras in the hands of nearly every passenger, episodes that once would have been barstool stories now become national news.
Which raises the question of whether passengers have a right to whip out the phone and start recording whenever they want.
Airlines have in some instances prohibited fliers from recording on planes or at the airport. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines says in its in-flight magazine: “If a crew member asks you not to use your camera/mobile device, follow his or her instructions.”
A recent filing with the U.S. Department of Transportation asks the federal government to clarify the issue and say airline passengers have a right to record to resolve disputes.
“Passengers face significant challenges in their efforts to hold airlines accountable for service they view as deficient or worse,” wrote Ben Edelman, a Harvard Business School associate professor and consumer advocate, in his request for rulemaking.
“Airlines and airline staff improperly attempt to block this market-based mechanism by banning recordings and purporting to ban recordings.”
It’s currently a gray area, pitting consumer rights against privacy rights, business owners’ interests and security concerns.
The DOT says it’s reviewing Edelman’s filing.
Airlines’ policies on video recording and photography vary.
The message Delta has had in its in-flight magazine for more than a year says: “You may use small cameras/mobile devices to take pictures on your flight. Always get consent from other passengers and crew members before including them.”
United Airlines’ policy on its website says: “Photographing or recording other customers or airline personnel without their express consent is prohibited.”
Enforcement is another issue, however. As the recent spate of incidents attest, passengers shoot photos and video on airline flights all the time, and they’re not always asking for everyone’s permission.
American Airlines in late May sent a memo to employees on “de-escalation” of conflicts with passengers, outlining policies on passenger video recording.
The memo from American says “when videotaping infringes on the safety or security of a flight, we have the right to request that filming stop.”
“But for the more mundane situations where security is not an issue, videotaping is a reality,” the airline said in its memo. “American has a policy asking customers not to film on-board or at airports, but there is no federal law or regulation that prevents it. Nor will law enforcement require customers to delete photos or video they’ve taken.”
Rights and rules
The heart of the issue is that in some disputes, “really no one would believe you” without a photograph or video, said Edelman. “With the recording, you could really prove that you’re right, if you are.”
Robert Stroud, a Delta passenger who lives in Atlanta, agrees.
“I think you should be able to record anywhere,” he said.
Stroud in June missed a flight and got into a dispute with a customer service agent at the Atlanta airport’s international terminal, then began recording video of their interaction. The agent told him he didn’t have her permission to record her. The dispute was eventually resolved and Stroud did not delete his video, but he was annoyed by it.
Stroud said he was once forced by police to delete a video while traveling in Bogota, Colombia.
“But I know in America, you are able to record … it doesn’t really matter who it is, if someone is doing something wrong, then you should be able to record it, because then you have proof of what happened,” he said.
Edelman, who has filed numerous other petitions and complaints over airline practices, said many passengers and employees are confused about whether they can record, and whether it’s a matter of law or airline policy.
In another of his crusades he wants passengers to record flight attendants making what he contends are false statements about credit card offers, but he said people are reluctant.
“Because they perceive that it’s prohibited to record, they don’t want to,” Edelman said.
Safety and security
One reason is that the potential consequence is getting kicked off the plane, or worse.
Airlines use a “right to offload you for any reason,” Edelman said, which he compared to firings of at-will employees for improper reasons.
And when it comes to security concerns, he thinks anyone who wanted photos or videos as part of a nefarious plan would use a hidden camera anyway.
Thomas Dickerson, an attorney and former judge who is the author of Travel Law on travelers’ rights, said it’s a bad idea to establish an unlimited right to record.
The captain “has almost unlimited power to tell people to behave or remove them from a plane if necessary,” said Dickerson. “They have to have that power to keep things under control.”
Dickerson doubts the DOT will interfere with that power.“I just don’t think it’s appropriate to set up an inviolable right to take photographs under any circumstances,” because that would remove the captain’s authority to determine what is threatening behavior and to respond accordingly, he said.
The murkiness extends within the airport.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport spokesman Reese McCranie said: “We don’t have any restrictions on filming in public areas.”
But there have also been incidents involving airline employees objecting to passengers recording video at ticket counters or gates, areas that are often leased by airlines.
In one case that prompted legal action, Delta passenger Matthew Boggan, 13, was traveling with family last year when their flight was delayed more than 12 hours. As an employee addressed passengers at one point, Boggan started recording smartphone video, and the employee swatted the phone out of his hand.
Boggan and his father sued, alleging assault and battery and emotional distress, and seeking punitive damages. The case is pending.
Delta argued that Boggan “interfered with the Delta agent’s ability to communicate an announcement and information about a change in flight status.”
Another issue is the privacy of both employees and other passengers.
“In all honesty, on some level I feel bad for airline employees increasingly being filmed by passengers, given that so many people think they’ll have the next viral story,” wrote travel blogger Ben Schlappig on his One Mile at a Time blog. The May post was about a Delta gate agent recorded on video by an upset passenger.
“At the same time, I truly think these recordings have been a cause for positive change in the industry.”
Edelman, who believes it might be a good idea for airplane cabins to eventually have automatic video recorders with a 30-second buffer to capture recordings when needed, said he’s sensitive to privacy concerns.
He noted that people sitting near the United passenger physically dragged off a flight in one of the most sensational incidents “have their faces forever memorialized in those videos,” Edelman said.
“As a society we’re going to have to confront the fact that we all have these video recorders with us … We’ll have to get used to it and figure out how to live with each other.”
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