Aviation enthusiasts pose with a Virgin Atlantic A-340. Photo Courtesy Dan Palen

Aviation enthusiasts pose with a Virgin Atlantic A340 – Photo: Daniel Palen

As an avid plane spotter, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the curious/uninformed public, skeptic law enforcement officers (LEOs), airport staff, and even airline employees. Typically these exchanges go positively and, with luck, without missing out on any good shots: “Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you taking photos in a post-9/11 world?” To which I respond: JL Johnson, frequent traveler, airline reporter, and, most importantly: AvGeek.

Typically I tell them about my passion and how [whatever organization they represent] is generally supportive (or at least tolerant) of such activity. It’s not uncommon that I pull out an iDevice and show the inquirer samples of my work and/or tweets endorsing or acknowledging spotting from various institutions (I keep a list of tweets handy for this very reason – you should too).

While doing homework on the environment in advance of spotting is key, I find that the more geeky and passionate I make the conversation the quicker a situation is defused. Apparently geeks can’t be bad guys. For whatever reason, people respond better not to fact, but passion/emotion. So I bring both.

Plane spotting- Even toddlers do it! Photo: JL Johnson

Plane spotting – even toddlers do it! Photo: JL Johnson

That’s the typical interaction. Alas, my attempts to convince folks that I’m not a terrorist and that my telephoto lens doesn’t shoot plane-crippling ray-gun beams are not always successful. I had one such interaction recently at Chicago’s Midway Airport (MDW) which I’d like to detail if only to clear the air about what’s generally allowed vs. not, how to handle these encounters, and to assure my AvGeek brethren that it’s typically OK to take photos of publicly-visible property from public areas. But…your results may vary.

Midway Airport (MDW) can provide some beautiful views - Photo: Jim Wissemes | Flickr CC

Midway Airport (MDW) can provide some beautiful views – Photo: Jim Wissemes | Flickr CC

I arrived at the airport well in advance of my flight, anxious to review a new (to me) airline flying aboard uncommon equipment. As with all of my travel, my trusty dSLR was at my side. Part of what I do is take photos of everything almost everything while on adventure.

Things to avoid:

  • Individuals (typically their faces) without their permission. Depending on the situation, the person could try to come after you legally… although unlikely, just don’t out of  courtesy.
  • TSA equipment. Don’t. Shoot. TSA. Equipment. Can you legally? Yes, the TSA has said so, but good luck doing it without a confrontation.
  • TSA lines and their representatives. Again… you can, but I wouldn’t advise it.
  • Military installations
  • Nuclear facilities
It's easier to shoot nuclear facilities from the air anyway. This is three-mile-island as seen on departure from Harrisburg International (MDT) Photo- JL Johnson

It’s easier to photograph nuclear facilities from the air anyway. This is Three Mile Island as seen on departure from Harrisburg International (MDT) – Photo: JL Johnson

The encounter:

After snapping shots of the signage pre-security it was time to put my camera away. Once through the checkpoint I had it back out and continued my leisurely stroll through the airport, occasionally snapping things of interest: airline signage, a closed door with a sign on it identifying it as a yoga room, and finally a nearly-empty, tiny concourse C with just three gates.

I fly through MDW at least a dozen times a year and, while I knew concourse C existed, I had no idea how small it was. Cute, almost.

The offending photo- An empty gate area.

The offending photo – an empty gate area

I walked towards the single customer service desk serving all three gates. It was unoccupied and the flight status boards were on the fritz. I backed up and snapped a few shots but was interrupted by a voice: “Sir… SIR… SIRRRRR! No photos in the airport!” I stopped and looked for the source.

BONUS: Why I Dig Planespotting at Midway

I asked the middle-aged airport employee who appeared to be a LEO why I couldn’t take a photo of an unoccupied desk. “It’s the law,” he replied with authority. He then mentioned 9/11, as everyone always does. Right…

I bit my tongue and asked for his name and he just replied, “Michael.” I could confirm this from what appeared to be an SIDA (secure identification display area) badge that he was an actual employee and not an impostor. But his last name was smaller, and I couldn’t make it out. “What’s your last name, Michael?” to which he responded “911.” He noticed me eyeing his ID badge and took a step back. Classy.

[Note from editor: I just want to take a moment to note that MANY people who report issues with authorities say that they were complete angels and totally respectful, where really, they were rude and looking to cause trouble. JL is one of the kindest people that I have ever met and I think he would have a hard time coming off mean or impolite, even if he tried. Okay… as you were. -David]

LEOs are people too. They don't have to be adversaries. Photo: West Midlands Police (Flickr CC)

LEOs are people too. They don’t have to be adversaries – Photo: West Midlands Police | Flickr CC

“Michael, I don’t think there’s a law preventing photography of empty desks. What department do you work for?”

“Aviation department. You’ve got to get clearance for any photography from O’Hare. That’s the law.”

It was time to board. I gave him my AirlineReporter busines card, told him I’d be following up and wished him the best. I also shared my experience via social media.

The response:

While the airport was active on social media for the next few hours and my query received a lot of attention from the AvGeek community, Midway was initially unresponsive. That evening, I emailed the Chicago Department of Aviation’s Media Director detailing the interaction.

To my delight, she responded within the first few business hours the following day and, shortly after, my social media queries were answered as well. I was impressed.

Taking off from Midway - Photo: Jim Wissemes | FlickrCC

Taking off from Midway – Photo: Jim Wissemes | FlickrCC

Well done, Chicago Aviation Department! 

Mr. Johnson,

Thank you for your message.

We regret the unfortunate experience you had at Midway International Airport yesterday.

The CDA Media Policy pertains to working media requesting to film at or past security checkpoints for story coverage or B-roll purposes. If that is the case, media representatives must contact my office to request escort past security. We will honor or deny the request based on staff availability and other factors.

As you were a ticketed and traveling passenger and as you stated, did not take photographs that might pose a safety or security issue, you should not have stopped by airport personnel.

We will follow up with staff at Midway to determine in which division the employee in question may work, and contact that division’s supervisors.

We exchanged a few emails back and forth confirming various details which suggests the above response was genuine and there would be a real effort to identify “Officer Michael 911” and retrain him on what is, and is not, allowed. I was very impressed with how MDW responded — world class!

How could one not take photos in MDW, where there are so many artistic opportunities? - Photo: Joseph Martinez | FlickrCC

How could one not take photos in MDW, where there are so many artistic opportunities? – Photo: Joseph Martinez | FlickrCC

Conclusion:

The key to defusing these situations is being respectful but firm. Not all encounters end positively in the field; in those cases it’s best to continue the conversation with officials as I did. It’s important to do one’s research before photographing in potentially sensitive areas. Additionally, laws vary wildly state-to-state, community-to-community, as do policies from organization-to-organization.

Finally, the USA PATRIOT Act is often quoted as basis for prohibition on photography. And while it does give wide authority for increasing “security” it turns out the words “photo”, “photography”, nor “photographer” appear not once in the entire 132-page document.

It’s crucial for the AvGeek community to shine a light on cases where officers seem to be making up (or misinterpreting) the law. Otherwise, with each encounter these incorrect assumptions become more ingrained as if they are true laws.

Bert P. Krages II, Attorney at Law and the ACLU provide some great resources on photographer’s rights.

Happy spotting!

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. His passions include catalyzing AvGeek passion in others, spending too much time on Twitter, and frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: [email protected]

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21 Comments

This is typical Chicago idiocy. Very few, if any, Chicago employees know the law. Frankly, I would have gone crazy and told him he better go get his supervisor or shut up. City employees are generally uneducated thugs who can only get employed through a political favor. This guy should be fired. Do a FOIA request for the identity of this person. The City will respond to that.

JL Johnson

Hi, Ron. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

I agree that big cities for whatever reason seem to struggle more with over interpretation of legality BUT major props to Chicago for acknowledging and responding to the issue.

Not sure that making a scene would have helped. I tend to be more reserved and while the experience didn’t end positively on-site I am satisfied with the Chicago Aviation Department’s response. Kudos to them for trying to remedy the problem.

As for costing the LEO his job, that sounds a bit extreme. I have no real hard feeling toward him now, knowing he’ll get appropriate feedback. While the experience was generally unpleasant, I have to say I’m totally satisfied with how things resolved.

No need to hold grudges, life’s too short.

Happy flying, Ron!

JL | AirlineReporter

Good thing I didn’t know about not taking photos of TSA equipment when I did that earlier this year. LOL

I’m glad you got a response from MDW after your terrible experience!

JL Johnson

I’m serious when I praise MDW in acknowledging the issue and taking steps towards addressing the particular officer. Thanks for the comment, Lauren!

JL | AirlineReporter

Ty Mann

Respectfully how does calling yourself an “aviation reporter” because you enjoy taking photos and plane spotting give “LEO’s” an accurate and honest description of your actions? If all you are doing is pursuing a personal hobby why not simply state that instead of what seems to be attempting to portray this as a professional press agent working? If you simply stated to the employee you are just a person taking pictures he may have had a different reaction though it seems unlikely.
Seems to me he may have believed you were press who had not gone through the proper procedures – why not just say you like planes and photography. Why is anything more necessary or helpful?

JL Johnson

Hi, Ty.

Thanks for reading and for the comment. What I do, what *we* do for AirlineReporter is far more than a hobby but even if it wasn’t, what difference would that make?

For what it’s worth, we have a global readership far beyond that of many local/traditional media outlets and are recognized as media or at very least “new media” by dozens of airlines, airports and related companies. I agree, many (but not all) of our writers are not reporters in the most orthodox sense. But since when is old media good at “getting it right” when reporting on airlines and aviation anyway? Enter enthusiasts who actually know what they are talking about.

All that aside, in this particular encounter I wasn’t given an opportunity to explain my position before a declaration was made. The encounter began with “no photos.” If he made the determination that I was press of any sort, that was an assumption all his own. Blanket statements without understanding the situation/scenario aren’t helpful hence the need for better conversation and retraining of those who take law and regulation beyond their intent.

Again, thanks for reading.

JL | AirlineReporter

This is a really interesting piece and it’s great that someone actually questioned the authorities and decision makers. All too often us avgeeks are made to feel intimidated around airports if we have cameras, binoculars etc. It’s great to know the real rules!

JL Johnson

Respectful but firm. It’s a delicate balance for sure. I’ve seen too much of one extreme or the other and not a lot in the middle. Folks can’t simply roll over, but at the same time making a scene isn’t constructive either. I think the real key is being willing to lose the “battle” in the field with option to have the conversation with those higher up. In any case, thanks for reading, Matt. I wish you the best of luck in your spotting endeavors! 🙂

JL | AirlineReporter

As a LEO at a major US airport, I hate to hear stories about negative contacts between LEOs and aviation photographers. I actually like to think of the regular photographers at my airport as another ring of security around the airport. They know who is actually an AvGeek and who is up to no good. We have had local aviation photographers talk to the officers about taking photos of aviation/airplanes. It has been a good education for the officers, and we have had a lot less (if any) negative contacts with AvGeeks since (the Paparazzi is a different story).

JL Johnson

Joe, this is so good to hear. Indeed this is a partnership that takes work from both sides. I hope that at some point we can get to a point where the environment you operate in is more common and generally accepted. Also, great to read that you consider spotters not a nuisance but an additional ring of security. So true. In the locations where spotters are generally accepted I find that the community is particularly diligent to make sure others aren’t putting what they’ve built at risk. There are a lot of models out there in play but the key is partnership. Thank you for your service and partnership w/ AvGeeks. And agree– Paparazzi is totally different story. I went up to MCI once when unique equipment brought in a football team. They thought I was there for the athletes but quickly dropped concern for me when I told them I didn’t care about the footballers, that it was the plane I was after. That plane in fact is the one at the top of this piece. The VA A340!

Thanks for reading.

JL | AirlineReporter

Can we ditch the work ‘geek’.
There is nothing stupid or geeky about being an aviation enthusiast.
We play a new and important role in the aviation world and we need to stand up and advocate for ourselves to this end.
No apologies, but respect.

JL Johnson

Greetings, Robert. Could be a generational thing at play here. As an early millennial (I’m 30) the label “geek” is generally accepted as an expert or someone passionate about something. I embrace the label but understand others don’t. I tend to lean on “enthusiast” in mixed company but since AirlineReporter is “Home of the AvGeek” it seems necessary. In any case, seems you and I are on the same page, just using slightly different verbiage.

Thanks for reading!

JL | AirlineReporter

Robertq

You’re cracking me up!!

In mixed company…LOL

Hey Robert,

To sort of mirror what JL said, I think each person might have a different name for it, but they all mean the same thing — you love aviation.

I have just found that many people feel this way and many have almost found partnership and friendship with the word “AvGeek,” knowing that they are not alone in this love!

Cheers,

David | AirlineReporter

Suraj S

Well I had a similar experience…..

I was standing on the balcony of Emirates Head-quarters and my friend was trying to photograph three A380’s together. That’s when a guy (in a suit, didn’t look like an official) came and told us that we could not use a DSLR to take photos!!! However he said we could take photos with a SMARTPHONE camera!!!!!!!

That was completely ABSURD but we didn’t want to get into trouble so we left.

European airports are on to the importance of spotting and catering to the crowd (AMS MUC)….We need more of the same in the states.

Interesting to read this as I had an experience at TPA last year that left me unsettled. I was videotaping, with my DSLR, the beautiful Art Deco of concourse E after which I was approached by a TSA representative. He began questioning me in a friendly way what I was filming and what kind of camera I had. The questions were quite personal but I responded politely. He never said that photography was not allowed but I was left feeling I was being suspected of doing something nefarious which left me feeling insulted. I tweeted Tampa Airport about the encounter and they apologized to me. I felt the whole thing was totally unnecessary and it tainted my travel experience.

JL Johnson

Well that’s no good.

Just goes to show that there’s a human element at play here. TPA for the record is one of the most open and embracing spotting airports in the US. Questions are okay in my book, good thing he was friendly about it! 🙂

Thanks for reading, Jay.

JL | AirlineReporter

Jay, I’m not sure why you would feel insulted after being questioned in a friendly way about what you were filming and your equipment. Do you feel insulted when the TSA checks for chemical residue on your bags or does a secondary check as you pass through security. I think it’s fair enough that those taking photos of aircraft facilities are questioned about what they are up to.

It is one thing to ask what you are doing. It is another to incorrectly tell you that you have to stop taking photos — which is wrong. Plus, not giving your real name? Not professional either.

David | AirlineReporter

Richard Theriault

Fortunately, some LEO’s get way out of line. About 7 years ago, a local officer at West Hampton Beach arrested a woman for taking pictures of the gate guardian at the local air national guard base. She as a local woman and was on her way home after target practice with her .22 caliber bolt action target rifle. She was arrested for having an ‘assault rifle’ and taking the pictures. I don’t know what became of the case, but I hope she sued the daylights out of the police department.

Gate guardians are there for a purpose. The honor the history of the base and the units based there and for taking pictures.

If your drive across any of the New York city bridges you will see a sign stating that photograph is prohibited. ANd there are some great shoots to be had cross bridges like the GW and the VZ.

As for the TSA officer at TPA, he had reasonable cause to see what was going on. He was polite and got satisfactory answers to his questions.

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