It’s common for airlines to have photography policies, even if they aren’t well known or publicized and even if they are ignored for the most part. They usually are something like “you may photograph your own personal events” (which is fairly undefined) but may not photograph crew or equipment.
People break this rules every day without knowing it, the rules are mostly there to be enforced when the airline wishes to do so or when a particular flight attendant is having a bad day (reasonable people can disagree on the appropriateness of photographing people which in the US is generally fine to do in public out in the open, but I don’t think there’s much of an argument against photographing your seat, meal, or the inflight entertainment system).
United publishes its photography policy in its inflight magazine (a strange place for it, I think).
ONBOARD PHOTO AND VIDEO POLICY United Airlines strives to provide customers with a safe and pleasant travel experience. The use of any device for photography or audio and/or video recording is permitted only for capturing personal events. Any photography or recording of other customers or airline personnel without their express prior consent is strictly prohibited. Any photography (still or video) or recording (audio or video) of airline procedures or aircraft equipment is strictly prohibited, except to the extent prior approval has been specifically granted by United Airlines. This policy is not a contract and does not create any legal rights or obligations.
United rarely enforces this, but when they do they take it seriously. Just ask Matthew (who also notes the irony of United releasing a safety video showing a passenger photographing a flight attendant).
Interestingly, then, via World Airline News Delta established a hashtag (#PhotogInFlight) and gallery for your next travel photos taken inflight.
PHOTOGRAPHER IN FLIGHT
Headed to someplace new? Share a photo of it from the air using #PhotogInFlight (this gives us the right to use your photo as our cover image).
Delta’s ‘taking off’ blog doesn’t exactly say what you can take pictures of, and this encouragement notwithstanding might still object to other things which another airline could object to in 1 of 10,000 flights.
But they also don’t make clear, through this encouragement, that there’s anything off limits, though I think we can reasonably assume anything safety related might be off-limits because we live in a hyper-paranoid society.
Maybe they’re just asking you to submit incriminating evidence?
As for restrictions on inflight photography, especially as it relates to the plane itself and its interiors — I am not a lawyer, let alone a specialist in aviation law or freedom of expression, but I wonder how much legal scrutiny these prohibitions would survive. The TSA cannot prohibit photography, with specific exceptions, so I think it’s fair to say that photography is not inherently a safety concern.
You do have to generally follow the instructions of crew members while inflight. Courts have repeatedly held that the broad latitude granted to airlines to enforce policies for safety reasons has some limits – an airline’s claim that an action is taken for safety cannot be unreasonable or irrational and ‘must be justified by the facts’.
The airlines own or have some property rights over the aircraft, so unlike inside most airports the aircraft isn’t a public space.
I’d love to hear from lawyers with knowledge of these issues.
Although in practice of course the airline can deny you boarding, or divert and offload you and refer you to law enforcement, and any recourse would be costly — and at a minimum you wouldn’t get where you were going when you intended to get there no matter the strength of your legal position.
Do you take photos when you fly?
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