Monday, December 15, 2014

The Busted Pilots of Instagram

By now I'm sure many of you have seen "The Pilots of Instagram" piece that's been going around the interwebs. I'm choosing not to post a link because the author printed the names and airlines of the pilots involved, even in cases where it's pretty clear that safety was not compromised and not even certain that regulations were violated. Even if the pilots did mess up, viral press like this has the potential to ruin careers where more measured discipline might be more appropriate. You can find the article easily enough if you want to.

That said, the piece was surprisingly accurate and nuanced for a general news source (if that's what you call it; I'd never heard of Quartz before this). The author had a solid grasp on the particulars of the new FAR 121.542 regulation and how it interfaces with the more established sterile cockpit rule. I dare say the author has much better knowledge of the legalities of in-flight photo-taking than most airline pilots do. I wrote about the new regulations back in June, when I learned about them several months after they took effect. Since then most airline pilots to whom I've mentioned the new 121.542 were either unaware it existed or had an inaccurate idea of its provisions (erroneously thinking that only laptops were banned, that phones are ok in airplane mode, etc). Most airlines, it seems, did little to educate their pilots about the new law.

In some cases, such as my airline, many personal electronic devices were already prohibited by the Flight Operations Manual (FOM). Though it contains airline policy, the FOM is approved by the FAA and technically has the full force of the FARs (and even supersedes them, where there is conflicting guidance). Despite this, it is my experience that pilots tend to be less heedful of FOM rules than the FARs, and in many cases the FOM has considerable grey areas open to interpretation, whereas the FAA's stance on most major regs is well known. Here's a good example. In my June post, I wrote that my airline's FOM already prohibited any camera with electronic functions, which would rule out nearly every modern example. Later, a check airman pointed out that my interpretation hinged on the meaning of a single word, and that based on the use of that word elsewhere in the FOM and the FARs, this provision would not appear to prohibit cameras that were otherwise permitted by FAR 121.542 (that is, cameras with no wireless capability). So my new understanding is that in a non-sterile phase of flight, I can take a photo with my Nikon D5000 SLR, as it has no capability that would render it a "personal wireless communications device." I could then, after the flight is over, insert the SD card into my laptop and upload the photo to Instagram, or Facebook, or use it for one of my Flying articles, all without being in technical violation of the regulation.

There's another loophole mentioned in my previous piece that very well may have been at play with some of the photos and videos referenced in this article. The FAA specifically said in the final ruling that 121.542 does not apply to jumpseaters. When I see a photo or a video that appears to be taken from near aircraft centerline rather than the left or right side of the cockpit, I tend to suspect it was taken by a jumpseater. For that matter, what of a first-generation GoPro with no wireless capability that is set up on a suction mount in non-sterile flight and then allowed to run through landing and all the way to the gate? Depending on the provisions of that airline's FOM, I can see one arguing that this meets the letter of the regs. In most cases, it's very difficult to tell just from the photo or video whether it was taken legally. Even in seemingly egregious case, such as a photo on short final, it can be difficult to tell whether safety was compromised. What if it was a still from a video shot by the aforementioned mounted camera? If mounted out of the way, I find it hard to accept that any lives put in danger.

Here's the thing though. It's one thing to take a photo or video in the privacy of your own cockpit under circumstances that are arguably safe and legal. It is another thing to put that photo or footage, with identifying information, on a website that allows anyone to view it (or in the case of Instagram, encourages maximizing public views). I myself have had to become a lot more careful about this over the years. I once took a picture at PHL while parked on a taxiway with engines shut down on an extended ground hold, and later posted it to this blog. The FOM of the airline I was with at the time made clear this was a non-sterile period, and allowed us to open the cockpit door under these circumstances. I was immediately lambasted by a commenter for violating sterile cockpit, and why not? I certainly couldn't prove that we weren't in a sterile phase of ground operations. Likewise, the outed pilots of Instagram that posted landing footage taken from aircraft centerline can't prove that a jumpseater was holding that camera. When it comes to the court of public opinion, the concept of innocent until proven guilty definitely does not apply; nor does it hold much weight when facing company discipline.

Honestly, I really dislike that my job has come to this, that recording the neat things that I do and see on a daily basis and sharing them with my friends would put my livelihood at risk. It is what it is; going against the grain and posting this stuff online is almost inevitably going to end up with someone trying to destroy you. I'll certainly continue to share inflight pics and vids with you, my friends...but they're generally going to be taken from a single-engine airplane flying under FAR 91. For the past few years that's been my flying club Cub. As of today, however, you're going to start seeing another pretty yellow airplane cropping up in my multimedia offerings. More on that in my next post!


Anonymous said...

As an airline employee (not a pilot), I can only say that the airlines have an awful PERCEPTION. And the PERCEPTION here is that the flight crew is goofing-off, because when a normal (for lack of a better word) person takes a selfie it is really goofing off. Even if the pilot takes a thoughtful photograph of a thunderstorm during a phase of flight where he/she is not flying the aircraft it still has the PERCEPTION of goofing off. Quite honestly all this personal gadgetry in the cockpit is bad for business and will ultimately cost us money.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this but it was in the recently popular posts section of your blog so...

I recently reached out to the flight of leadership if one of our regional carriers when I saw a post and photo from a Republic pilot (I'll protect the name of the pilot) who was bragging that he was flying from Rome to sign in for a trip that started 3 hours after landing in EWR and was 3 legs that first night. Their response was that he rested (in coach) on the flight and wasn't fatigued to fly.

I know I wouldn't get on an airplane with him.