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Thu, Nov 03, 2022

Passenger Rights to Privacy in the Information Age

Extermination of the Shutterbug?

The COVID epoch and its lugubrious afterglow have seen the once congenial relationship between airlines and air-travelers degenerate into a miasmic cold-war characterized by suspicion, mistrust, passive aggression, outright belligerence, authoritarian overreach, and the mutual expectation of misery.

Disputes over mask and vaccine mandates have given rise to sober and divisive debates over bodily autonomy, individual liberties, and the limits of edicts handed down by unelected bureaucrats in thrall to three-lettered federal agencies.

As 2022 lumbers winter-ward and airlines brace for the busy holiday travel season, a number of popular, globetrotting bloggers have reported being unlawfully detained by aircraft cabin-crews, and made to disclose the contents of their digital devices—particularly photos taken while aboard the aircraft.

A noted aviation photographer recently tweeted: “Honest question: can a crew member physically prevent me from getting off of the airplane until I showed them the contents of my phone (they wanted to see the last three photos) to verify that I did not take a photo that contained them in it?” The tweet referenced events that transpired aboard American Airlines flight 854 from Seattle (SEA) to Charlotte (CLT) on 28 October 2022.

In subsequent tweets, the photographer wrote: “I was off the plane and the FA had the captain prevent me from going further down the jet-bridge and then brought me back onto the plane and took the phone out of my hands. I had stepped into the jet-bridge and the FA had what I think was the pilot or FO block me from going further. Then they brought me back on the plane and the FA demanded I open my phone and show them the last several photos and then took the phone out of my hands to inspect them.”

An inveterate traveler cognizant of airline policies, the photographer added: “I get that they may have a policy about not photographing staff without their permission. I get that and support that. Does suspecting a passenger violated that enable them to functionally detain someone and search a personal device?”

Responding to the string of tweets, aviation blogger Zach Honig put forth: “This is incredibly upsetting to hear. I can’t believe they thought for a moment that it’s acceptable to force you back onto the plane and demand to see your phone. Sorry this happened to you.”

Mr. Honig’s empathy derives in part of his having previously endured similar treatment at the hands of an American Airlines aircrew. He chronicled the instance in a blog titled “When Photography Gets You in Trouble at 35,000 Feet,” stating therein: “The purser was accusing her [Honig’s girlfriend] of taking pictures on the plane, which, apparently is forbidden. Except that it’s not—well, not exactly. The thing is, Sarah didn’t even have a camera—I was the one taking pictures. The purser went so far as to say ‘this could be trouble for the both of you,’ which carried some pretty serious implications, especially given the current state of commercial air travel.”

Mr. Honig subsequently contacted American Airlines, which responded to his queries about the incident with the following statement: “American allows photography and video recording for personal use. For many customers, taking photos and sharing them on social networks has become part of their travel experience. When photographs and video are used for professional purposes, we do our best to notify flight crews so they are aware and prepared to offer some additional latitude with journalists and bloggers.”

@dubshn1028 from Ireland added to the tweet string, stating: “It happens a lot on some European airlines where a warning is given not to photo crew or pax but they can photograph the outside of the plane. I know some of the bloggers get away with it."

The proliferation of digital technology and the ease with which it facilitates the surreptitious recording of the unwary or disinclined has forced humankind to scrutinize traditional notions of privacy and better define the nebulous boundaries separating the public and private spheres. That technological advancement occasions change in societal mores, folkways, and legislative conventions is a precept repeatedly proved throughout the industrial age. That contemplative philosophers and fatuous lawmakers lag perpetually behind trenchant scientists and impassioned researchers is equally well established.  

Until such a time as Western Civilization’s social compacts, laws, and commercial aviation regulations catch up with the likes of Apple, Google, and Twitter, travelers are reminded that they are on private property while aboard an airline’s aircraft. Ergo, air-carriers seem to have the right to disallow cameras, photography, and any other devices or activities they deem objectionable.

FMI: www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/air-travel-tips

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