Ask the pilot

I took some pictures at the airport -- and fell into the clutches of bureaucrats mouthing the cheap prose of patriotic convenience.


Patrick Smith
February 10, 2006 5:40PM (UTC)

It was 1986, as our Finnair DC-9 descended through the midwinter overcast above Moscow. The captain came on to make the usual pre-landing announcement, this time with an addition: "Ladies and gentlemen, photography through the aircraft windows, or anywhere at the Moscow airport once we land, is forbidden." A stewardess then walked down the aisle, making sure we all had our cameras put away.

From 10,000 feet, the landscape below was hardly photogenic -- sky, clouds and terrain merging in a featureless curtain of gunmetal gray. But the captain's warning wasn't a surprise, flavoring our arrival with a little Cold War excitement. This was, after all, communist Russia, and photography at public installations was, everyone knew, strictly off limits. As tourists from the so-called free world, we expected some firsthand experience with the constraints of Soviet society. But while the rules made good stories for friends back home, for an airplane buff they were highly vexing; I so badly wanted a picture of the Tupolev jet we'd later ride to Leningrad -- the terminal guard waving his finger as I gestured hopefully with my dad's old Minolta. It all seemed excessive, really.

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Skip forward 20 years. It's January 2006, and I'm at the airport in Manchester, N.H. This is a state, mind you, famous for its fiery brand of New England individualism -- a haven for refugees from big-government tyrannies, like that sweltering welfare state to the south, Massachusetts. Here, license plates cry liberty in no uncertain terms: "Live Free or Die."

There's a shiny new airport in Manchester, and I'm there to take pictures as part of an article I'm working on for that mouthpiece of liberal fascism, the Boston Globe. I've shot about six digital pictures, and I'm working on the seventh -- a nicely framed view of the terminal façade -- when I hear the stern "Excuse me." A young guy in a navy windbreaker steps toward me. It says AIRPORT SECURITY in block letters across his back. "You can't do that. You need to put the camera away."

"I do? Why?"

"Pictures aren't allowed."

"They're not?"

"Sorry."

"Sorry what? I don't think that's true, actually. I'm pretty sure that it isn't illegal to take pictures at an airport."

"You'll need to talk to a deputy, sir."

I slip the camera into a pocket as the guard, who despite his crested cap and cocksure understanding of the rules, is a private security guard and not a law enforcement official, quickly summons over two members of the Rockingham County sheriff's department, which administers the Manchester airport.

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The deputies -- a woman and a man -- are polite but stern, and they'd like to know exactly what I'm doing. "You need to have a permit to take photographs," one of them says. "Maybe we can call and see if they'll give you clearance."

I'm not sure I believe it. "What do I need a permit for? Is there a rule here against taking pictures? Is it illegal?"

"I don't know," she replies, crossly, as if the question somehow isn't relevant. "I don't think so, technically."

"So, if not, why would I need a permit?"

"That's what the airport wants. You'll have to ask the airport manager."

They ask to see press credentials. When I explain that I'm a freelancer they demand a driver's license. The woman deputy takes it and disappears for several minutes.

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While waiting for my license to return from its secret mission, I tell the other officer how this is the same airport where, in 1986, I received my private pilot's license. From runway 35, four years later, I made my first takeoff as a cockpit crewmember. It's all very different now, in more ways than one. And I tell him how, as adolescent planespotters in the late '70s, my friends and I would scour the terminals at Boston-Logan every weekend, armed with cameras, notebooks and binoculars, taking pictures and logging tail numbers, fully aware that in many countries, hobbies like ours were essentially illegal.

The cop shakes his head. He's an older guy, who probably remembers when MHT had two flights a day with 15-seaters, before Southwest came in with seven gates and nonstops to Vegas. "I know," he says. "It's too bad. But we live in a different world now."

Soon thereafter my license reappears and I'm free to go. "May I use my camera?"

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"Yes," is the answer, so long as I don't take any photos inside the terminal. And next time, it would behoove me to receive permission before arriving.

The following afternoon, at T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I., the very same thing happens. Again I'm taking pictures for the Globe story, and again I'm detained by an airport policeman. The conversation unfolds almost identically, with similar confusion over whether my activities are in violation of a law or statute. And this time, it winds up taking an absurdly long 45 minutes before I'm allowed to proceed.

"I understand what you're doing, and why you're doing it," I say. "But can you tell me: Am I breaking a law or statute?"

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"Well, no, I don't believe so," he answers, sounding less than confident and maybe a touch annoyed that I'd phrased things so directly. He's professional and polite -- a young guy, maybe an ex-Marine, all arms-akimbo and barrel-chested in that way of cops. "But," he asserts, "there are certain things you can't take pictures of."

When I ask him to clarify this obvious contradiction, he can't. "Well, which things are those?"

He pauses. "I can't tell you."

"Like the control tower maybe? What about airplanes?

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"I can't tell you."

"How can you prohibit people from photographing things, but not tell them what those things are?"

To this he only shakes his head, relaying my vitals into his shoulder mike and scribbling onto his notepad. Is he being evasive, or does he not know for sure that he's right?

Finally I'm asked to open my camera and scroll through each of its stored photographs, presumably to ensure I haven't snapped any shots of those shadowy forbidden items. When that checks out, and the news comes crackling back that I'm not a wanted fugitive, the officer thanks me for cooperating and lets me go. He makes sure to remind me, just as his colleague in New Hampshire had done, that next time I'd benefit from advance permission, and that "we live in a different world now."

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Not to put undue weight on the cheap prose of patriotic convenience, but few things are more repellant than that oft-repeated catchphrase. There's something so pathetically submissive about it -- a sound bite of such defeat and capitulation. It's also untrue; indeed we find ourselves in an altered way of life, though not for the reasons our protectors would have us think. We weren't forced into this by terrorists, we've chosen it. When it comes to flying, we tend to hold the events of Sept. 11 as the be-all and end-all of air crimes, conveniently purging our memories of several decades' worth of bombings and hijackings. The threats and challenges faced by airports aren't terribly different from what they've always been. What's different, or "too bad," to quote the New Hampshire deputy, is our paranoid, overzealous reaction to those threats, and our amped-up obeisance to authority.

A somewhat confused and recalcitrant authority at that. For the record, I don't necessarily fault the officers at MHT or PVD for checking me out. What concerned me was the length of the questioning, and the uncertainty over the legality of what I was doing. In some ways, a system of semiautonomous bureaucracies is less dangerous than a centralized and overconfident one, but it felt as if the airports were trying to have things both ways -- affecting an absolute, take-no-prisoners attitude toward any potential threat, yet without being able to actually tell me who controlled what, or why. (And I hate to think how long my detainment might have lasted had my name been Muhammad or my I.D. not readily available.)

The million-dollar questions are: Is it a violation of law to take photographs at airports? And under whose jurisdiction does the matter fall?

"No, it's not against the law," says Anne Davis, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokeswoman. When asked about jurisdiction, Davis describes TSA as the overseer of all airport security matters, including the supervision of local law enforcement. "The buck stops with us," she says, adding that the agency has no specific policy with regard to picture taking, other than asking people not to tape or photograph screening apparatus.

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At T.F. Green, public affairs vice president Patti Goldstein clarifies that technically I'd done nothing wrong, but that media members are requested to call in advance so that TSA or police aren't surprised. "This is a public space, and media are allowed to photograph and film in and around the airport. All we ask is for prior notification."

That's sensible, but I wasn't approached as a member of the media. As far as the officers in Providence and Manchester knew, I was just a guy with a backpack -- a passenger, a visitor waiting to greet a family member on an inbound flight -- who happened to be aiming his Canon around.

I then presented the issue to Phil Orlandella, the media relations director for Boston's Logan International Airport. As the departure point for both of the 767s that hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Logan's security procedures came under intense scrutiny in the weeks that followed. Orlandella's office sits off a corridor between Terminals B and C, and he's been intimate with all all things Logan for more than a quarter century.

"Who controls security, TSA or the local police?" he says. "They both do, it's that simple. And no, it's not against any rules to take pictures, inside or outside, period. If anyone tells you otherwise, that's a bunch of baloney."

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He warns that yes, individuals snooping around with cameras might be approached and questioned, but photography itself is fully within a visitor's rights. "A passenger is free to take any picture he or she wants," he says, "in any public area of the airport, end of story. If you're not deemed a threat, you're free to click away."

Soaring nearly 300 feet above Orlandella's office, meanwhile, is Logan's FAA control tower, the 16th floor of which once housed an observation deck. That deck has been shuttered for several years, but it got me thinking about the many planespotters and other aerohobbyists around the country -- and around the world -- whose penchant for staking out runways with binoculars and telephoto lenses has almost certainly led to trouble. At Miami International, large groups of enthusiasts used to gather along the fences. Crews taxiing past would slide their cockpit windows open and wave. According to Miami International spokesman Marc Henderson, most vantage points were blocked off after Sept. 11. From Miami and elsewhere, stories abound of spotters harassed and evicted from their favorite perches.

"We've tried to accommodate those people," says Orlandella at Boston-Logan. "To some extent it's a property issue; we could say that a parking garage or a terminal rooftop, for example, isn't there for the purpose of hanging out all day with a camera. But I've met with planespotters, and so long as we know where they are and what they're doing, that's fine with us."

Orlandella's frankness and open-minded approach are refreshing. He was at Logan on the morning of Sept. 11, which he shudderingly describes as "the worst friggin' day of my life," and he and his airport have been subject to an avalanche of criticism ever since. Most of it misguided. Regulars to this column are familiar with my own feelings about that day -- specifically my opinion that the attacks had little or nothing to do with a breakdown in airport security -- but it's comforting to hear somebody of Orlandella's experience and position speaking with candor and reason.

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Truth be told, the United States isn't the only nation wrapped around the axle over the specter of terrorism. Many foreign airports have been the setting for some pretty notorious crimes of their own. In 1988, Pan Am 103 lifted off from London-Heathrow, then and now one of the world's most security-conscious airports, and also one of the most popular for planespotting. There, commercial recording or photography is prohibited without a permit. Personal photography is not specified, but according to Damon Hunt of the Heathrow press office, "There are obviously some sensitive areas where no one can film, and these are clearly marked." Hunt explains that spotters at Heathrow, who can number in the hundreds on any given day, tend to gather near the visitors' center, some distance from the perimeter.

At Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, commercial photographers and members of the media are similarly asked to apply for a permit. "The press office then will give permission, stating what is allowed and what not," says Schiphol spokeswoman Marianne de Bie. Otherwise, photography of security, baggage and immigration facilities is generally prohibited. Photography of airline staff or operations areas is allowed only with consent of the airline.

"We hardly experience any problems with these procedures," de Bie says. "It all takes place within reason, and passengers do not feel harassed."

Spotters are still permitted to take photos from an outdoor terminal terrace, and along the viewing area adjacent to runway 06/24, "so long as they're not hindering traffic," de Bie says. "If so, police can ask you to move on." Schiphol's perimeter bikeways remain open to the public. One can cycle from the terminal to the city center in approximately 45 minutes.

The whole uneasiness surrounding cameras and airplanes turns pretty laughable when you click over to Airliners.net. From terminal views to closeup glimpses from the cockpits of almost every airline on earth, the comprehensiveness of this site's archives is a wonderful testament to artistic freedom and the strange cult of aerophilia. Officially, few airlines permit photography of their flight decks nowadays, but at Airliners you've got a search feature able to winnow through your choice of airline, aircraft type -- right to the very tail numbers of individual planes.

Admittedly, the twitchiness of airport security and the revocation of spotters' rights doesn't quite shatter the foundations of American democracy. Still, the lesson here is one about precedent and the slippery slope from grudging acquiescence to iron-fisted prohibition only a bombing or hijacking away. And, of course, the unsettling irony: in 2006 you're liable to encounter fewer hassles taking pictures at former Cold War outposts like Prague or Bucharest than you are in New Hampshire or Rhode Island.

I also have the distinct impression that the majority of people told to put their cameras away, regardless of their right to refuse, will simply do so. Airport authorities aren't out to harass or steal your liberties, but neither, it seems, are they terribly interested in arguing the fine print. For cops patrolling a terminal, it's easier just to bully an unsuspecting passenger and be done with it. Chances are he or she won't complain. And that, if anything, is the proverbial different world in which we've come to live.

GO-AROUNDS

RE: Airline woes symptomatic of a lost America?

The decline of our airline industry reflects a decline in energy and optimism in North America in general. The contrast with China is dramatic. On my last trip there, I was impressed with the many new regional airports being built in places like Changsha, Xian, Kunming and even Dunhuang, in the Gobi desert. I see the energy and optimism in every area of Chinese society that reminds me of the '60s in North America. Going to China now is like going back to that happier time when anything seemed possible. Why has everything become so depressing and paranoid here?

-- Peter Patten

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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