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Should Videotaping in the Cabin Be Illegal?

David Dao, the now-famous doctor dragged bloodied and bruised off of a United Airlines flight, is a much richer man these days, thanks to his fellow passengers who’d videotaped the fracas in disgust. The events that took place last April sent shockwaves through the industry and helped airlines to implement some positive changes to protect the best interest of customers and encourage better customer service. But technically all of those amateur videographers were breaking airline policy on video and photography in the cabin, as they were doing so without the permission of the people involved.

I agree wholeheartedly with the passengers who caught this on tape, as even though neither side acted perfectly, the brutal way in which these security officers handled this was absolutely uncalled-for, and needed to be captured in order to prove Dao’s case. But then we delve into the myriad cases of supposedly wronged parties that followed, in which snippets of scenarios in which an airline employee has been sufficiently worked up into a lather make the news. The audience of the six o’clock news is then left to decide within fifteen seconds who was in the right or wrong. As a flight attendant, I couldn’t be happier that viewers have become fatigued with this trend, not only because I think the format is tiresome (passenger with a halo vs the mean old airline…every time), but it’s made the cabin environment entirely hostile at times. When inconveniences arise, people seem more reactionary. And whipping out a cell phone to document the situation does not exactly bring about a better customer service experience at the time.

So is it ever okay to violate crew instructions when you feel that some sort of wrongdoing needs to be exposed?

Each airline has their own version of this policy, and most center around security. Obviously, you won’t find anyone willing to detail what specifically we airline employees are trying to protect. It is not acceptable for a person to repeatedly question those instructions. No one will or should give a very specific answer regarding the information they are trying to protect.

Security issues aside, there is also the issue of personal privacy. I’d once been sent a YouTube link by a coworker, which I’d ignored for several days, assuming it would just be maybe a cat video or something similar. Imagine, then, my surprise when I finally watched it and was looking back…at myself. I’d been doing nothing but the safety demonstration, and the video had 100,000 views. I hadn’t known I’d been recorded. I have caught passengers photographing me without my knowledge or consent before; only men being creepy, though, not anyone trying to intimidate me because of customer service issues. If those people had ignored my instructions to stop, it would have made for a hostile work environment. It would then be harassment. The flight attendant position is one that is fetishized for some, so we tend to have to deal with that. As things are now, there are only airline policies, not laws, to prohibit someone from doing this.

However, here’s another personal example. I was traveling standby on flight benefits, and, for better or worse, airlines tend not to like other airline employees biting the hand that feeds them, so I didn’t follow up with the airline. I’d been seated next to a gentleman who’d somehow managed to board a flight carrying a cocktail, and as we spoke he was clearly getting more intoxicated. And the drunker he got, the stranger he got. I pretended to use the lavatory, but informed the crew that he’d boarded with a drink and to consider not serving him any alcohol. By the time I returned to my seat, the very flight attendant I’d warned about him immediately served him another drink! As he got more belligerent, I began to ignore him. He didn’t like that one but and began to yell at me in a threatening way. I went to the back galley to not only get away from him, but to tell the crew. The head flight attendant started to laugh after I’d asked her for help and said, “Oh, honey, I have a gala to attend after this, I’m not doing any paperwork!” Luckily another passenger, upon hearing that I was the target of the man’s angry shouting, immediately gave me his seat.

Would I have wanted to videotape that situation to prove that my account was true? As a paying passenger, I would be tempted. I felt unsafe and incredulous that I was refused any help. But I did nothing, because I’d flown for free.

I’m always excited for passengers for whom flying is an exciting and novel experience. And I would hate to have laws in place that would preclude them from documenting the occasion because there are some who try to intimidate us and cause disturbances with their cameras. But we as crew universally feel a “just try me” attitude now among people who don’t want to hear “no” for an answer. The media ought to stop rewarding everyone who tapes a ruckus or films things they ought not to – such as cabin evacuations in progress – with fifteen minutes of fame. Videos taken with the intent to verify a complaint should first go to the airline. It’s the same logic my parents taught me about bullies as a kid – if you ignore them, they’ll go away. If the media were to practice this, things might be different right now.

I absolutely recommend obeying crew commands to stop filming if told, but if you feel like you’ve been treated poorly and it needs to be dealt with, contact your airline and get witness contact information. But should videotaping against crew commands be illegal? It’s a slippery slope. We feel better with nanny cams and police dashboard cameras. Do these all belong in the same category?

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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11 Comments
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bedelman June 25, 2017

Amanda, you ask: "Is it ever okay to violate crew instructions?" (your paragraph three). Indeed, many passengers -- and by all indications most crew -- have the idea that passengers are obliged to follow their instructions. I'm trying to figure out the source of that requirement. I found 14 CFR 121.317(k) which requires that every passenger comply with the instructions of 317(f),(g),(h), and (l). But those sections pertain to seat belts, no smoking signs, smoking in lavatories, and tampering with smoke detectors. Nothing in 317(k) imposes any overarching duty on passengers to comply with crew instructions. Is it your contention that passengers are obliged to comply with crew instructions? Obliged because a federal law says so? A federal regulation? Contract? Something other source of authority? Because it's just the right thing to do? Some details on the applicable regulations are in my recent DOT filing about passenger right to record. See http://www.benedelman.org/aviation-consumer/pfr-passenger-right-to-record-19jun2017.pdf , especially paragraphs 30 to 34.

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skidooman June 22, 2017

In a perfect world, one wouldn't need videos. But we all know what would have happened without videos for dr. Dao. Not much. Perhaps some litigation. And bad airline personel at United would continue to make it like the bandits they are. Yes, I would feel entitled to film. But not only if a crew member misbehaves. If a passenger acts badly with a crewmember, I want that consigned so his or her employer knows who the guilty party is. Besides, is there a single logical rationale for a ban on all recording? Privacy? Come on... there is a world of difference between the perp does his thing and someone filming bad deeds for posterity.

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FlyingNone June 2, 2017

Cameras videotaping on flights ? What happens when the cabin lights are dimmed and how would events in any given row be seen over seat backs and heads ? If cameras were over or near every row/ section, people would figure out how to "disable" them (a small piece of tape?). If this ever happens passengers will be threatened with rolling the tapes when landing or taking sobriety tests. Otherwise I guess we will all have to become obedient little children that sit robot-like throughout the flight - no talking, no moving, no questions, no choices, no pillows, no blankets, nothing - just sit there.

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eng3 May 31, 2017

The news media will never ignore these kinds of videos. They are in the business of trying to telling you what you want to hear and attracting more viewers. Actually reporting facts has become secondary.

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96SS May 31, 2017

Here is an idea. Since airplanes are no better than flying buses, and public transportation have cameras now, why not just have the airlines install cameras in their planes, and record it all, good or bad. Although I have a feeling that the airlines really do not want to know how bad flight attendants (or passengers) can be.