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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44 Responses to “Travel writer thrown off United flight for snapping photo of his seat”

  1. Skeptical Cicada says:

    Enough with the disclaimers about what Matthew said. What Matthew said was perfectly reasonable. He was not to blame.

  2. Carissa Pavlica says:

    Frankly, I was shocked by this article. I wantonly took photographs of my meal on a Luftansa flight to Frankfurt because I was so excited to have genuine cutlery – real metal forks and metal serrated knives (accompanied by all the wine I could chug – in coach)! If they had the same attitude, they would have probably drop kicked me out of the plain over the Atlantic.

  3. RWG says:

    This idiocy is with us to stay, sadly enough. I once read of a security incident at Bradley Airport in Connecticut. A janitor was emptying the trash cans in one of the men’s rooms and found a pair of scissors. He reported this discovery to his supervisors who escalated the find to a major threat. All the planes on the tarmac were recalled to terminal, the passengers de-planed , the terminal vacated and then searched by armed police and bomb-sniffing dogs. After nothing more was found, some two hours later, the passengers were allowed to re-enter the terminal, were all re-screened and finally able to depart on their now much delayed flights. Anyone with a brain would realize that some guy found he had packed his grooming scissors by mistake and threw them away before heading to security for screening. But, this is our brave new world of freedom, with liberty and justice for all. Welcome to America.

  4. Quilla says:

    You know, of course, that the airlines are furiously lobbying against High Speed Rail because of their perceived profit interference…just sayin’

  5. Jim Olson says:

    Sounds just dreadful.

  6. karmanot says:


  7. UncleBucky says:

    High Speed Rail from Chicago to Buenos Aires! It’s entirely possible.

  8. UncleBucky says:

    Can you speak with a Québécois accent? Or any other continental regional French accent? I konw that the history of French has been to speak only Parisian French, but…. :)

    BTW, I laugh whenever I hear an accent like in King of the Hill, y’all. ‘Specially like Boomer’s.

  9. Clecinosu says:

    Makes me glad I don’t have the need — or the money — for air travel.

  10. indep_in_la says:

    Personally I’d like to see a boycott of all airlines against the foolish security theater that TSA puts on. I don’t think we will ever see any changes to this garbage until the airlines and airports lose money.

  11. Swami_Binkinanda says:

    Alaska Airlines can be pretty good. Tiny coach seats considering the size of people who live in Alaska or work there, though. More than once caught in the middle of an oilfield roughneck sandwich.

  12. Luigi DaMan says:

    Sorry to say, but in my estimation the airlines and TSA have made flying totally miserable. When possible, I travel by land. To hell with these people.

  13. DavidinPS says:

    Am I the only one who thinks this doesn’t pass the smell test? I’m not a big defender of air travel, but this guy’s story seems suspect to me. Remember it is only one side of it with no witnesses. He just seems a little too reasonable in his version of the tale. My bet? The guy was asked to stop taking pictures and he continued doing it then got huffy when he got caught. Probably caused a scene–which of course he doesn’t cop to here–and the captain was called. Trust me, captains aren’t called when people are as polite as he claims to have been. Now he’s trying to extract his revenge on his blog. The truth is, I don’t know what happened, and neither does anyone else here.

  14. rodnchance says:

    Maybe the airlines should post a list of all the words that can never be used in conversation while in a plane and/or around an airport. Should hand out that list with every ticket purchased, that way there is no guessing whatsoever. Each passenger or person in an airport agrees to put aside the 1st amendment for the duration of time spend on in or around an airport.

  15. Naja pallida says:

    I loved flying standby on Air Canada when I did random traveling across Canada. I don’t know if they still have the policy, but it used to be that even if the only seat available was in first class, you could still get it as a standby passenger. Many times I flew first class for the price of a standby ticket. :)

  16. Naja pallida says:

    That’s the open-carry airline, right?

  17. I get a kick out of how the person in the Lufthansa video keeps talking about how he saved 3 to 4 euros by getting a free cappuccino in first class! I suspect his first class ticket cost a bit more than that :)

  18. Yeah, I was very impressed when I flew them a few years ago to Europe – NICEST people. And I had GREAT fun speaking French with the Québécois in the Montreal airport, I almost laughed the first time I heard the accent (I’ve clearly spent too much time in France :)

  19. I thought you wrote Sedition Airlines!

  20. Steven says:

    Actually, since I’ve been flying in the 60’s I have NEVER had a good flight; something was screwed up, on EVERY SINGLE LEG of UNTIED Airlines flights. I will NEVER voluntarily take a flight on UNTIED Airlines. I would rather take a 3legged flight than be on a direct flight with them.

  21. sunmusing says:

    This should expand the argument for High Speed Rail…crossing the oceans could be a draw back tho…

  22. Priscilla says:

    As with any third hand story, there are two sides and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I have taken many, many photos inside empty United flights without a peep uttered by any FA. I also know the United trained FAs to be strict rule followers and unyielding. They have had the worst reputation for customer service – Continental FAs had the BEST reputation so I think that is an error in the article. United merged with Continental, but have not yet merged FA crews and it shows.
    I was caught trying to take a photo in a Paris museum, Google my post Caught Trying to Take a Cezanne, and you will see what happened. Breaking rules, whether you are aware of them or not is no excuse. But, neither is there an excuse for the FA failing to let the Captain have a word to determine the validity of the passenger’s account. Again, we only have one side of the story.
    Moral of the story, when confronted with a likely rule infraction – apologize, disengage, relax and learn from it.

  23. Naja pallida says:

    It’s pretty sad when I’d rather go back to flying across country in the cargo net seating in the mind-numbing noise of a Herc than fly a US carrier. Back in the days when military and dependents could hitch a ride on almost any base-to-base flight, as long as they had the space for you.

  24. mark_in_toronto says:

    Wouldn’t happen on Air Canada.
    They’d probably offer to take the photo so you could be in it.

  25. HeartlandLiberal says:

    Here is a ten minute video a guy did of his Lufthansa First Class trip last year. Never a hint that what he was doing was a problem. And it made a first class YouTube video, too. I mean, he has pics of everything, from the showers in the first class waiting lounge, the magnificent buffet of food, to the single malt scotches to drink while you wait. And, OMG, right at the end, at the 10:00 mark, he has a shot of the back of the seat in front of him!! ONOZ, the terrorists have won!!

    Then the menu and wine list in first class. Seriously, when I win the lottery, I plan to fly only first class on Lufthansa if and when I fly again.

    Also, United Breaks Guitars. What has become one of the great instruction manuals for business on how to NOT treat your paying customers, because they might write a song that goes viral worldwide and rub your nose in it for the next several years.

  26. Jim Olson says:

    All airlines suck. Rude, poorly trained, overworked employees. Seats that are squeezed to the last millimeter close to one another. AWFUL food, (if any at all), and the sense that going through security is more challenging than being checked into prison. Flying is a pure misery from beginning to end, and the airlines know that they don’t have to do a damn thing about it. There is not one single redeeming thing about any US airline today and I, for one, refuse to fly US carriers for any reason. I have taken the train all the way across America several times recently. Its longer, and often more expensive, but so worth the cost. US airlines can just bite my shiny metal ass…they’re not getting ONE SINGLE DIME from me.

  27. OtterQueen says:

    I refuse to fly on a commercial plane until crap like this ceases to happen, and TSA comes to its senses. For now, if the Air Force doesn’t fly there, then I’m driving or taking a train.

  28. GarySFBCN says:

    On a plane, one never uses the word ‘terrorist’, period, unless they are pointing out a terrorist on the flight. It does appear that the flight attendant should have a psych evaluation.

  29. Naja pallida says:

    When you see your friend Jack walk onto the plane, don’t yell “Hi, Jack!”

  30. They weren’t bad in the 70’s and 80’s.

    And from what I’ve heard, it’s the other way around. United turned to crap, went bankrupt (, screwed over it’s employees and retirees, and went downhill from there. The Continental acquisition, IMHO, brought Continental down to United’s level of (dis)service.

    Of course, this is just my opinion. Fortunately, I don’t fly enough for it to get me kicked off of an airplane.

  31. ottnott says:

    Why take pictures? United will happily provide travel writers, terrorists, and anyone else with an internet connection with pictures of the exterior, interior, and even cockpit of a new plane:

    Only paying customers of United will get thrown off the plane, though.

  32. Naja pallida says:

    I can’t wait for Sedation Airlines. They just put you to sleep for the duration of the flight, so they can pack in twice as many people in little capsules.

  33. Naja pallida says:

    Just tells me that their employees are not very well trained, have no common sense, and caused more of a disruption, and instilled more potential fear in other passengers, than someone taking a few pictures ever could have caused. Idiots.

  34. Jafafa Hots says:

    (then again, I usually fly JetBlue because the seats are comfier, there’s more legroom, the planes are newer and the service is friendlier, all for less than the “full fare” “Premium” airlines that such in comparison by these metrics.

    (I don’t normally endorse anything, but…)

  35. Jafafa Hots says:

    I have taken full video on board airline flights… including the one time I forgot (like a nitwit) that it was an electronic device, and video’d the entire taxi and takeoff, as well as tons of aerial footage.

    I’ve never been bothered.

    Then again for some reason I have a certain look to me that makes people often tend to leave me alone.

  36. nicho says:

    This is just bullshit on the part of United. I read a few travel blogs, and they all take pictures of the insides of the cabins, the food, the amenities, etc. That’s what they do.

  37. freewayblogger says:

    The “T-Word” perhaps…

  38. TuxedoCartman says:

    You seem to imply United once had good customer service. What decade was this? =

  39. masaccio says:

    This is about what we can expect in the future: sit down and STFU stupid passenger. Hateful bastards.

  40. Indigo says:

    It isn’t United anymore, it’s Continental with a United logo. Bad service with a snarly attitude.

  41. pcloadletter says:

    The solution is to replace the word “terrorist” with “He Who Must Not Be Named.”

  42. I think my problem with the entire affair is that they seem to be freaking out because he used the word terrorist – and that’s ridiculous. It’s one thing to make bomb jokes in an airport. It’s another to have the flight crew get upset with you for a supposed security violation and for you to explain that you are not a security threat – and then they use the fact that you explained you’re not a threat as proof that you are a threat. So yes, I agree with you on that point, though I agree with Chris too – the sad fact is that you CAN”T even explain that you’re not a terrorist and survive the experience in our nation’s airports.

  43. TuxedoCartman says:

    There’s one thing wrong with your write-up of this incident, Chris: he didn’t say anything wrong, and shouldn’t have has to say anything differently. This mindset that you can’t say certain words, like “terrorist” or “bomb” on a plane, or at the airport, is just the height of idiocy. I mean, does security expect Al Qaeda operatives to conduct their missions like, “Hello Terrorist Joe. Is the bomb planted on the airplane?” “Yes, Terrorist Sally. It is in my carry-on bag overhead. Death to the infidels!” I mean, that’s the only reason I could see air crews getting upset over passengers saying “terrorist”, is if they really believe shit like that.

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