United Airlines — The Not So Friendly Skies

Jessika at Home

This story comes to us via The Consumerist (but so far as I’ve been able to ascertain has not been reported in any mainstream media:  “United Says Photographing Staff Could Get You On ‘No Fly’ List, ….

Here’s the gist:  A woman was upset with United Airlines’ baggage handling at Houston’s airport, so she photographed a United staff member’s name tag in order to file a complaint.  The staff member tracked the woman down and

demanded that I hand over my camera phone so that she could delete the photo I took. I politely refused. She then insisted that I delete the photo while she watched. I again refused. She then informed me that if I didn’t delete the photo in her presence, she would call the Houston Police Department, have [me] arrested, put me on the “no-fly list” and “make me miss my fancy Costa Rica vacation.” She stated, “you will never fly my airline again.” I asked her what law she was talking about and she replied, “My law.”

Against her better judgment, the woman deleted the photo.  Later, the woman wrote United to complain.  Its response jerks several chains:

What you refer to as a law is actually a United policy. We strive to make its customer experience safe and comfortable and accordingly issued the following policy in regard to the use of personal audio and video equipment. This policy is not a contract and does not create any legal rights or obligations.

Unauthorized photography, audio, or video recording of airline personnel, aircraft equipment, or procedures is always prohibited. Any voice, audio, video, or other photography (motion or still), recording, or transmission while on any United Airlines aircraft or in the terminal is strictly prohibited, except to the extent specifically permitted by United Airlines.

Insistence on violating any one of these prohibitions could lead to arrest or being placed on the “no-fly list”. Those results are extreme but are possible depending on the environment at the time. I hope this information helps.

Now I’ll dissect this UA policy and suggest that any UA staffer who acts like described first above may actually be committing a crime, at least in Minnesota.

Here are the salient points, as I see them:

  • UA may certainly ban photography on its own property.  That means on its planes, or in its offices, or on the agents’ side of the United desks.  An airline terminal, however, is open to the public, especially the ticket-holding public, and within the publicly accessible areas UA has no power to restrict photography.  The terminal authorities themselves would be hard-pressed to restrict photography, given that people take thousands of photos every day on both sides of the security barriers — to forbid specific photography without having a reason relating to safety or security is simply neither feasible nor legal (IMO).
  • Aside from the fact UA cannot legally enforce its restrictions, on what charge could they have anyone arrested?  If it is a UA policy, it is a private matter and not subject to criminal enforcement.  If a person is on UA property, trespass law would apply, but since the terminal is not UA property there is no trespass.  UA’s may attempt to enforce its own policies, but to call on police to do so could well lead to a case for false arrest.
  • In the reported case the UA employee threatened both arrest and placing the woman on a UA no-fly list if the woman did not delete the photo.  That, plain and simply, is the crime of coercion (or attempted coercion), a non-trivial crime in Minnesota.  Why?  Because to coerce the woman into doing something she otherwise did not want to do and was not legally obligated to do (erase the photo — i.e., destroy her property), she was threatened with arrest and revocation of the right of carriage.  Threatening someone with arrest is definitely an element of the crime of coercion.  A case might be made that denying her the right to fly would be denying her a property right, or a right that is hers by law.
  • Can UA enforce its policy by denying a member of the public the right to fly?  UA is a common carrier.  I’m not expert in law relating to common carriers, but as I understand it a common carrier must have a really good reason for denying someone a ticket.  Unless UA can demonstrate that its policy is legitimate, and — even more importantly — that violation of its policy somehow endangers UA or the traveling public — I shouldn’t think UA has power to arbitrarily put someone on its no-fly list.  In this case, I think an inquiry of the FAA (if it ever gets its funding back) would be in order.

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Happily Married Department

An emotional and uplifting first-person account of a NYC gay marriage from (and of) an ACLU staffer.

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New Model Department

Portrait of Cherry

Introducing Cherry, with whom I worked for the first time yesterday.  (Click to see full-sized.)  Love her exotic, part-Asian looks, flawless skin, and cheery nature.

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In her home (her husband left as I arrived).

This entry was posted in Air Travel Security, Civil Liberties, Gay Rights, My Photography, Uncategorized, War on Photography and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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