Travel writer thrown off United flight for snapping photo of his seat

A US-based travel blogger for UPGRD got kicked off the plane after taking a photo of his seat on a United Airlines flight to Turkey. It was a new plane and he wanted to show it to his readers.  Big no-no, according to United.

I’ve done a lot of flying – more than I care to remember – but I had no idea taking a photo inside the cabin was not allowed.  Who hasn’t taken a photo inside a plane?  (Oh, United claims you can take a photo of someone else inside the plane, but not of just of the inside of the plane – because Mohammad Atta wouldn’t be smart enough to pose another terrorist in front of a part of the plane he needed a photo of. It’s a ridiculous policy, as written.)

It’s a rather strange story, and it’s still difficult to say whether the problem he encountered was because of the harmless photo that he took, or his unfortunate choice of words used after being reprimanded by the United Airlines crew.

Whichever it was, it’s too bad that it’s come to this. It’s even more unfortunate that at this time, United has not reached out to the travel writer to address the situation.

The problem started when Matthew took this very dangerous photo of the back of the seat in front of him in business class:

Dangerous photo taken by UPGRD travel blogger

Ver dangerous photo taken by UPGRD travel blogger

He was soon after confronted by a United flight attendant who informed him that photos such as this are not allowed inside the cabin. One would assume this has something to do with anti-terror regulations, but they never say that specifically.

Here’s Matthew’s version of the story:

I looked at the FA, smiled, but said nothing, putting my iPhone away. To be clear, I did not take any more pictures—not a single one. Meanwhile, another passenger was taking pictures behind the curtain and the FA ran over to him and demanded that he stop as well. This passenger had a lively discussion with the FA, though I did not hear the resolution.

Naturally, the FA’s warning bothered me and I felt the need to explain myself. I signaled for her to come back and asked her to hang my coat. I then said this verbatim—

“I want you to understand why I was taking pictures. I hope you didn’t think I was terrorist. Here is my business card [offering her one]. I write about United Airlines on an almost-daily basis and the folks at United in Chicago are even aware of my blog.”

She took my jacket but refused to take my business card saying, “No, that’s okay,” then saying, “I did not know that” after I explained my reason for taking pictures. I again emphasize, I took no more pictures.

Admittedly I’ve never taken a photo inside a plane (note from John: I have), but I still wouldn’t have imagined it was such an extreme violation of the rules. Perhaps Matthew made a critical mistake when he used the word “terrorist” in his response to the flight attendant – but still, if his version of the story is accurate, it’s an equally poor response by United, considering he didn’t use the word as a joke or something, he was literally explaining that he was not a security threat, he was a blogger that was familiar to the airline.

Matthew was next pulled aside and asked to leave the plane. He tried to speak with the captain, who brushed aside his response and asked him to leave before they called the police. Again, Matthew could have used more common sense with his choice of words but for United to bump him, then re-route him with multiple connections (miserable for any traveler) because of one flight attendant is just rude.

What’s scary is that United is considered by many to have the best service of the US-based airlines (another note from John: that’s no been my experience), yet this is hardly what anyone would or should consider quality service. If you’re a frequent flyer (the kid has a lot of miles) you really deserve better than this.  And if they treat you this way in business, where traditionally they’re nicer to you, imagine what they’d do to you in coach.

As glamorous as non-frequent-fliers think overseas travel is, it’s not. Flying east on long hauls overnight is awful, so to then get bounced around and miss connections is just salt in the wound. What has to be especially frustrating for Matthew is that after making the simple mistake of taking an innocent photo, the problem escalated into an ugly scene and being booted from his flight because he tried to explain to the flight attendant why he took the photo.  And then, according to him, United lied about why they removed him from the plane.

For the millionth time, everyone wants to be safe and regular fliers want this as much as anyone, but these random displays of obnoxious actions by the airline employees have to stop. It’s stressful enough for travelers to be humiliated and jerked around by the TSA but then to have equally abusive behavior by the airlines, followed by a lack of accountability (just like the TSA) is horrible.

Sorry, but re-routing through hell is not an answer considering the kid made a simple mistake. Matthew needs to perhaps be more cautious with his words, but United needs to wake up and learn how to treat a dedicated customer who was simply explaining, if were to believe his story (and I do), what had happened. Too many businesses abuse their privileged position in the market.

In the case of the airline industry, it’s just a little too easy to hide behind the broad threat of “terrorism” (especially, the old “the guy said he wasn’t a terrorist, so maybe he was being tricky and he really is!” excuse) and get away with anything. Whether it was snapping a photo or his careless but innocent response, there needs to be a lot more accountability. United owes their nearly one million mile traveler an apology and then some for this bad behavior.

An American in Paris, France. BA in History & Political Science from Ohio State. Provided consulting services to US software startups, launching new business overseas that have both IPO’d and sold to well-known global software companies. Currently launching a new cloud-based startup. Full bio here.

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