Editorials

October 18, 2012

Time for New York’s Port Authority to Admit It Doesn’t Like Photographers

Major airports like LAX not only allow spotting, but they have set up telescopes for people's viewing pleasure.
Major airports like LAX not only allow spotting, but they have set up telescopes for people's viewing pleasure.
The reasons that hobbies like planespotting have become challenging after 9/11 are obvious. An activity that is largely unknown among a justifiably sensitive and concerned public leads to the understandable reaction of calling the police to report suspicious behavior. As an organization, NYCAviation has always encouraged people to call police if there is anything that strikes them as odd or suspicious. Enthusiasts and citizens alike should all play it safe, and we urge our enthusiast friends to always carry their ID, cooperate with police, and wear a smile. If police didn’t show up to check us out on occasion, I’d probably be worried. We welcome officers and citizens to come say hi, as we want to work with them to keep our airports and skies safe.

Though awareness about our hobby has increased tremendously through positive press in mainstream media, and police are knowing more and more about the neighborhoods in which they serve, a large majority of interactions with law enforcement are usually friendly and even enjoyable. Handshakes, quick chit chat to determine that we are not a threat, along with an ID check and we are all free to part ways to enjoy a happy and safe day. These kind and professional officers who have a challenging enough job as it is, often ask us if we have seen any suspicious activity, because just a few of them see the value in spotters keeping a close, educated eye on the airport perimeter.

But sometimes these encounters do not go so well. There are still officers out there that look to intimidate enthusiasts, thinking that if they scare us good enough, they will deter our “behavior” of watching planes again. They couldn’t be more wrong.

At New York City-area airports, I feel these type of encounters are largely due to that fact that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) has no official rules on aviation enthusiasm, planespotting or photography in general on airport property. For years, we have been privately told of the unofficial “no photography on airport property” rule, and NYCAviation has subsequently encouraged spotters to only employ off-airport locations throughout New York City.

The most upsetting thing I have seen from PANYNJ was in an email some years ago, where a member of airport management stated that Port is “required to discourage plane spotters and aviation photography enthusiasts.” Yet there is no public acknowledgement of this, with no rule or policy to flat-out ban it. So one has to ask…why?

Ironically, the TSA labels spotters as threats outside the fence at General Aviation airports, while GA barely has any security for those entering the airside premises at all (click to enlarge).

Ironically, the TSA labels spotters as threats outside the fence at General Aviation airports, while GA barely has any security for those entering the airside premises at all (click to enlarge).

Among the 100-plus pages of PANYNJ’s Airport Rules and Regulations [pdf], no mention is made at all of photography, watching planes or anything of the sort. This leaves law abiding citizens open to harassment or mistreatment, often because officers are simply not aware of the hobby, and there is no guidance for them to follow. With no rules to go by, officers and security guards will continue to fire falsehoods at enthusiasts, saying that photography is illegal, that we have to delete our photos, or the worst and all too common, “spotters are part of the reason 9/11 happened”.

Try explaining to your kid why the police officer just said Daddy was partly to blame for their friends and relatives that died that day back in 2001.

Interestingly, the most recent disgusting encounter occurred this past weekend at JFK by an enthusiast who didn’t even have a camera (read his full story here). One NYCAviation community member was watching planes from a parking garage when approached by plain-clothed individuals who were reluctant to even identify themselves as police officers, much less show their badges or offer additional information. Calling the enthusiast an “a–hole” just because he asked these two people, who otherwise were nothing more than threatening, confrontational strangers, to see a badge and get a badge number.

That encounter is not acceptable. Not for a spotter or any member of the traveling public. Though not as frequent as years before, it is far from the first time, and I am sure it will not be the last.

Manchester Airport in England has the right idea. Utilizing enthusiasts as extra eyes and ears to keep the airport safer. (click to enlarge)

Manchester Airport in England has the right idea. Utilizing enthusiasts as extra eyes and ears to keep the airport safer. (click to enlarge)

It is time that the Port Authority take a step with enthusiasts. New York City has among the largest contingent of planespotters and aviation enthusiasts in the United States, and this city should be a pioneer in safety and rights for its citizens. Maybe the Airport Watch programs that are popping up around the nation are not be a perfect fit or simply too hefty a challenge in this massive city that is home to 4 airports, but we should not tolerate this gray area with which we currently stand that leads to being on the receiving end of verbal abuse and mistreatment.

It is time for Port to either officially say that photography is not allowed and they don’t like aviation enthusiasts, or for them to say that it’s ok to watch planes. To say that they encourage the groups of people that actually like and support the airport in this industry that otherwise faces such opposition and derision among the traveling public and surrounding communities. An acknowledgement that the people who have extensive knowledge in aviation and a strong care for the safety of our nation, who happen to monitor airport operations in their own free time…are an ASSET to our communities and NOT a threat, and should not be treated as such.

This affects not only aviation enthusiasts, but is just one portion of an ongoing battle that photographers of all kinds have been fighting for years all around the nation. Our call for an official stance from PANYNJ may bring about an end of the use of certain spotting locations, and we may not like what we have to deal with as a result, but no good people should have to be treated like criminals or terrorists because they like to look at airplanes.

If you have questions about planespotting, aviation photography, comments about the above issues, want to learn about Airport Watch or offer ways to help, please contact phil@nycaviation.com.


  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.maywelby Michael May-Welby

    Imagine what an asset to law enforcement a national network of trained plane spotters would be? If regular plain spotters are put through a basic airport security training course and have formal reporting channels they can go through then law enforcement would possess an excellent tool that can assist them with safety issues, accident/incident reporting and as an anti-terrorism measure at a next to nothing cost to taxpayers. It’s not rocket science.