October 18, 2012

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

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 [email protected].

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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  • Too bad most airports can’t be like Las Vegas and put a parking lot right next to the 2 main runways with a radio station that broadcasts ATC communications.

    • Las Vegas is great, and I have even seen big trucks parked in this area if it isn’t too crowded. More airports should make viewing area’s available. Just post the fact that identification may be necessary, and that no weapons are allowed in these viewing area’s. My aircraft spotting goes back to the 1960’s, and goes along with my life long love for flying.

  • I have had so many negative encounters with the Port Authority police. Downright nasty officers, rude, and poorly informed.

  • Portland International Airport (KPDX) has a dike you can drive on (Marine Drive) and also park on that parallels one of the main runways. Lots of places to park overlooking the busy runway and watch the activity. Phoenix (KPHX) won’t let me near a runway to watch. argh!

    • Actually, I frequent PDX for spotting quite frequently while awaiting roadside assistance calls for work. I believe the Port of Portland is actively trying to remove the Marine Drive view points. They’ve removed the large gravel pits typically used for parking (excluding the one across the street from the boat ramp) as well as blocking off parking immediately west of the 205 overpass. Port Police doesn’t seem to mind avgeeks like myself and others in the area. I’ve watched spotting areas disappear quite a bit over the past 5 years.

      At CHS at 2am after a delayed flight from IAD, I had the pleasure of being scolded by a local LEO in the terminal. I was taking pictures of the CRJ that I just flew in on. She walked up behind me and said “no pictures”. I’m not too proud with how I reacted, but wasn’t rude and replied with “since when?”. She repeated herself. I then proceeded to ask about a local ordinance I wasn’t aware of or if she was just making it up. She didn’t say any other words, just stood there following me. The 3 other male officers nearby seemed to be on my side. I took two more shots and walked on my merrily way to meet my father who watched all this occur.

      It’s a shame that LEO’s and local governing bodies are literally TAKING AWAY childhood dreams. You don’t hear of children wanting to be airplane pilots anymore. Not just the “guilty until proven innocent” by many reports across the country regarding AVgeeks, but even airport grounds being modified and taking away viewing spots. Gone are the days of parking against the fence and laying on the hood watching planes take off(or land) right over you. I spoke with a man visiting the states from England and he told me about Manchester and their love for avgeeks. I can’t wait to visit one day.

  • About time y’all stand up up to them! The way I see it, and the laws are on my side, if I’m on public property taking pictures, a LEO has NO legal right to detain or ask for an ID, I keep a clipboard full of rules and regs from TSA, DHS, rules printed from the airports website which only pertain to commercial photography, the Krages photo-rights page, etc. One thing I always heard from LEOs was I could be arrested for photographing “infrastructure”, well my response to them is, why does the airports website have a aerial shot which contains all kind of infrastructure?? Not to mention the webcams that show traffic AND the progress of the new terminals progress which could easily be used by a terrorist! The webcams are no longer up! 🙂 Common sense will eventually prevail, example, next to the new terminal upper level road there is a smoking area which overlooks the ramp area next to gate B1, which is more of a threat, a lit cigarette 200 feet from a jet being fueled or someone snapping pictures of the jet??? I like your site and visit it often, I wish y’all well and hope things work out to your advantage!!!

  • Luckily, I have yet to meet the MWAA down here, but the PANYNJ are just ridiculous here. I’ve heard you guys complain before, but I didn’t know it was that bad. They need to step it up and clearly state a position. This shouldn’t be happening at the second busiest airport system in the world.

  • Phil, have you spoken (or considered speaking) before the PANYNJ Board of Directors during the public comment sessions held during their monthly board meetings? You get three minutes to voice your opinion before the board. Unfortunately you don’t get any feedback right there, but you’ll be heard and on the record, and usually there are key PANYNJ directors, managers, policymakers and law enforcement representatives present.

  • Just read that report and I have to say I’m disgusted!!! Who do they think they are, the guy didnt have a camera binoculars or anything like that with him, yet they treated him like a terrorist…..or worse!! I live in the UK, we have had the “odd” incident of stupidity from private airport security guys who suddenly think they have all sorts of powers….which they dont! But some airports are now opening using spotters as they know security and the cops cannot be everywhere all the time, and know spotters can! During the Olympics this summer Stansted airport police were VERY proactive with spotters, giving us the ideal locations to spot/photograph, and telling us where not to loiter, everyone did their part, and everyone was happy…..not seen one bad report so we all must have done something right!
    I’m coming over to the US on a family trip next spring to see Mickey Mouse, transiting EWR inbound then IAD on the way back home. I’m hoping to be able to watch a good few aircraft at both……..fingers crossed.

    Love the site guys and check it regularly.

  • Brian McDonough

    I agree with Anthony, take it to the public hearings on a regular basis. You have to keep tossing it in the boards face on a monthly basis till they make it a subject to be discussed. It is a public airport if they accept any federal funding and therefore legal to shoot at.
    And, Jordan- MWAA has been quite accepting of we photographers at both IAD & DCA, no problem whatsoever for us locals as long as we follow certain guidelines they have stipulated, and, are easy to live with.

  • I think airports, and I know plane spotters/photographers would be better off,
    if they embraced us rather than block things off. At SEA the only place
    I have not been harassed is the water tower grounds at the North-East
    end of SEA. In general at SEA harass is not a good word to use as most
    of the King Co, Port Authority cops are friendly and just checking what
    you are doing. Maybe we should approach our local authorities, be it
    city, county pr port and work with them to find a viable solution that
    works for everyone. But out guidelines that here are places you can
    photograph from and here is stay out zones. Then we could publish the
    info on a website that photographers going to the area could look and
    find where to go.
    Something to consider. Also at PDX and PHX both I have shot from the parking garages with no trouble at all. PDX two weeks ago from the short term parking area and PHX three years ago. It will cost you, but it isn’t much in either case.

  • In Australia the authorities use planespotters to help monitor airports and work with them as an asset.

  • 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.