Flogged for Filming the Friendly Skies


A friend of mine1 recently got a YouTube message from an account called “UACorporateSecurity.”

The message read:

It has been brought to the attention of United Airlines Corporate Security that you have posted multiple videos on YouTube which are in direct violation of both an FAA safety regulation as well as a company policy. These videos depict both take offs and landings as well as recordings of United Airline’s Channel 9 transmissions.

United Airlines has a policy prohibiting any unauthorized audio or video recordings of airline personnel and it is stated on our website as well as in the Hemispheres magazine which is in the seat back pockets of our aircraft.

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration strictly prohibits the use of electronic equipment including cameras and cell phones during certain phases of flight. These recordings, having been taken during take off and landing, violate FAA safety regulation 121.306.

If these postings are not deleted, United Airlines is prepared to pursue all appropriate remedies in order to have them removed.

My friend’s account did, indeed, have videos2,3 of aircraft landing and taking off. Some of them contained air traffic control transmissions.

Before I continue, a few factual points need to be made:

  • For the purposes of this specific video, United has zero evidence that:

    • The planes in said video(s) were United aircraft
    • The air traffic control from the videos isn’t from a source other than Channel 94
    • That said friend even shot said videos5

    In short, were United Airlines to make these claims in any court of law, they’d be laughed out of the courthouse.

  • Nothing in my analysis below should be taken to construe, imply, or otherwise indicate that any of the above possibilities are true.
  • There is no evidence this “UACorporateSecurity” even represents United Airlines, or any of its related companies6; if United had any actionable evidence, they would be pursuing it via normal, legal channels; they wouldn’t register a YouTube account with a cutesy name and start spamming people.

The Terrorists Did It!

It’s interesting that UAL7 cites a violation of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

FAR 121.306 is the “portable electronic devices” regulation; it’s a legalistic way of saying you can’t use anything but certain devices8,9 during takeoff and landing, and any devices not listed in the regulation must be certified by the operator of the aircraft, i.e. United, to ensure it won’t interfere with the navigation and communication system11 of the aircraft.

The only problem is: that regulation doesn’t apply to passengers. Part 121 governs air carriers and air-carrier operations.

This is a small, but important distinction: United has to prove that they told everyone, on every flight, to turn their devices off. If they don’t, they are at fault. And even if they do, that specific regulation has nothing to do with passengers. But it sure is scary-sounding to someone who doesn’t know what F-A-R stands for…

This email would have significantly more credibility if United had cited the law requiring compliance with “crew-member instructions, lighted signs and placards,” since someone taking a video during takeoff would be breaking that regulation12 assuming they had been informed by a crewmember to not do that.

But claiming a violation of the part 121 FARs is like claiming that an individual can be prosecuted for eating shady food that hadn’t met FDA regulations.

Declaring an Emergency?

So why the fuss about these videos?

Corporate liability.

What these notices really are about is United worrying that some “nosy asshole passenger”13 will be randomly filming as some thrower slams a baggage cart into a fuselage on the ramp, and those dents subsequently take the plane down.

It would be a goldmine for any aviation lawyer for-the-plaintiffs who found that video after the fact.

And that would cost an airline—and airline shareholders—millions in settlements.

So instead of being transparent and open about its operations and the operations of the National Airspace System, United has decided to try to bully its most ardent fans.

Instead of being curious about possible issues safety issues with its operations or the operation of the National Airspace System, United has cried “terrorism” and (laughably) threatened legal action.

This goes beyond shameful.

It’s downright despicable.

It’s not about these videos. It’s about hiding activities, policies, and procedures that could be threatening lives, and which would otherwise go unnoticed.

Losing Radio Contact

Through all of this, I’ve told my friend to ignore United’s threats and repost his videos.

And I hope at some point, he will. They were good.

They portrayed aviation in a light that made the public forget about the baggage fees, the interminable waits, and the chore that flying has become, all so Glenn Tilton can get a bigger bonus.

These videos framed aviation the way aviation should be portrayed.
1 Who shall remain anonymous, for soon-to-be obvious reasons
2 Which were quite well shot, I might add
3 And which are now private, unfortunately
4 Say, LiveATC.net
5 Or, heck, has even been on a United aircraft
6 It turns out United has this byzantine corporate structure, due to its financing and desire to protect assets when they get sued
7 Or whoever is posing as United
8 Which are listed in the regulation
9 Did you know electric shavers are allowed10
10 I’ll say it for you: WTF?
11 But interfering with the fly-by-wire system, apparently, is OK
12 Which, it’s unclear, is even part of the FARs; it’s likely a criminal statute?
13 In official corporate parlance