Universal customer service standards usually dictate that when you are frustrated with customer service, you have the right to report the individual to his or her supervisor. You can usually do this by getting the name, badge number, or even a photograph of the representative with whom you are dissatisfied. United Airlines, however, now says you have no such right to photograph their representatives under law, a decree that even the TSA reportedly finds laughable.
The Consumerist recently published the experiences of a reader who was flying from Houston to Costa Rica. After dealing with a particularly unhelpful representative, she snapped a photo. After the incident, however, the representative told her that she would be arrested by police and "you will never fly my airline again" if she did not delete the picture:
"A minute later, we noticed [the employee] chasing us across the lobby. She demanded that I hand over my camera phone so that she could delete the photo I took. I politely refused. She then insisted that I delete the photo while she watched. I again refused. She then informed me that if I didn't delete the photo in her presence, she would call the Houston Police Department, have be arrested, put me on the 'no-fly list' and 'make me miss my fancy Costa Rica vacation.' She stated, 'you will never fly my airline again.' I asked her what law she was talking about and she replied, 'My law.'"
The writer goes on to explain she deleted the photo to end the ordeal which was bringing her daughter to tears, but shortly after leaving the understaffed baggage line she told the events to a TSA agent nearby:
"I deleted the photo and [the staffer] smirked at us and walked away. When we asked a TSA agent about it, she laughed, 'of course it's not illegal.'"
The airliner who employes the representative is the newly-merged United/Continental Airlines. Upon returning home from her vacation the the woman sent complaints to both United and Continental, receiving different reactions. Reactions that are surprising and contradictory.
Continental quickly responded offering apologies and stating that "the behavior you described is not reflective of our commitment to providing customers the highest level of service." Two weeks later, however, United responded with a different reaction, citing its own policy:
"Unauthorized photography, audio, or video recording of airline personnel, aircraft equipment, or procedures is always prohibited. Any voice, audio, video, or other photography (motion or still), recording, or transmission while on any United Airlines aircraft or in the terminal is strictly prohibited, except to the extent specifically permitted by United Airlines.
Insistence on violating any one of these prohibitions could lead to arrest or being placed on the 'no-fly list'."
The TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, but that can be superseded by local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances. It doesn't say anything about specific airline policy.
This isn't the first time in recent memory that a passenger has faced scrutiny for photographing an airline employee. A woman was allegedly kicked off a U.S. Airways flight about to leave Philadelphia last month for photographing a rude employee. That woman alleges the representative got revenge by dubbing her a "security risk."