The pilots of Instagram: beautiful views from the cockpit, violating rules of the air

The view from the cockpit.
The view from the cockpit.
Image: Instagram
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The pilots of Instagram are internet famous. Their stunning photos of the skies, captured from their unusual perspective inside the cockpit, garner hundreds, sometimes thousands of likes from fans.

But taking photos, or using most any electronic device, while piloting a commercial aircraft is prohibited by American and European regulators. Pilots for airlines large and small, flying planes of all sizes, seem to be violating the safety rules, taking photos with their phones as well as GoPro cameras mounted inside the cockpit. Some also appear to be flouting even stricter regulations for takeoff and landing, when not even idle conversation is allowed in the cockpit.

Experienced pilots, safety experts, and airlines say the rules are important. Pilots are prohibited from using most personal electronic devices, even at cruising altitude when the plane is on auto-pilot, to ensure they stay focused on flight duties. While restrictions on using electronics have been loosened for passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US has actually strengthened its rules for pilots in recent years.

“In commercial aviation, the primary concern is safety, and that doesn’t have any area for compromise,” said Charles “Bud” Bernat, who recently retired after flying for United Airlines for 29 years. He added, “Someone holding a camera or a device, is a big no-no.”

To gauge the extent of violations, Quartz has monitored hundreds of Instagram accounts over six months and collected a trove of photos and videos taken by people clearly sitting in the pilot or co-pilot seat on commercial flights. Many images appear to have been captured during critical phases of flight, like takeoff and landing.

The Instagram photos also make clear why it’s so tempting for pilots to snap photos while flying. Their front-of-the-plane vantage leads to beautiful photos of sunsets and other planes zipping by.

The pilot’s view.
The pilot’s view.
Image: Instagram

Even more striking—and more dangerous—are photos taken while a plane is landing. Regulators in the US, UK, and EU require that pilots maintain a “sterile cockpit” from the moment they pull away from the gate until the plane is at cruising altitude or above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), and again on the way down until the plane is parked.

During those periods, pilots must focus on “essential operational activities.” They can’t read, eat, drink, or talk about anything unrelated to operating the plane. They certainly can’t take photos, yet Quartz found many examples on Instagram of photos seemingly taken from a pilot’s seat while a commercial airplane was landing.

Image: Instagram

“It’s hard for people to understand, but during the first 30 minutes of the flight, you’re as busy as a guy can be,” said Tom Hoban, a 23-year veteran who flies an Airbus A320 for American Airlines. He is the spokesman for the union of American Airlines pilots, the Allied Pilots Association. Taking photos during takeoff or landing is a serious distraction, he says: “The bottom line is it’s a violation of our rules at American Airlines.”

It also violates rules set by the FAA and other regulators, including the UK’s Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA), the EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Violations of sterile cockpit rules have contributed to at least three US plane crashes in recent years, including a 2009 Colgan Air flight that crashed while on approach for landing in Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people aboard.

Descending into LaGuardia

Moments when sterile cockpit rules were likely in effect.
Moments when sterile cockpit rules were likely in effect.
Image: Instagram

“#Descending on the #KORRY #arrival into #LaGuardia,” wrote Jesse Elliott, a 26-year-old pilot who appears to fly for United Airlines, in a caption on the photo above, at left, which he posted on May 4, 2014. (KORRY refers to a specific flight path into LaGuardia Airport in New York.) The others show him “waiting for our wheels up” at Reagan National Airport on June 13, 2014, and capturing the sunset while descending into Dulles Airport five days later.

Elliott deleted his Instagram account after inquiries by Quartz. His bio used to say, “Turning my life into art…. It’s all iPhone!” In an email, he objected to the use of his photos and wrote, “This is not a violation of any FAA regulation. It is being done outside sterile cockpit and being done while not the pilot flying.”

On a typical commercial flight, two pilots operate the plane, one of them flying and the other monitoring the radio. Both pilots are subject to the sterile cockpit rules.

United Airlines said in a statement, ”It is against United’s policy for employees to post to social media sites while on operational duty. We hold our employees to the highest safety standards and expect them to comply with all company policies.” It’s not clear that Elliott actually posted the photos to Instagram while on duty, but even just taking the photos isn’t allowed. United didn’t respond to questions about that.

Cockpit selfies

Image: Instagram

Takeoff and landing may be the most sensitive periods, but at no point while operating the plane are pilots in the US allowed to use phones, GoPro cameras, and other personal electronic devices. That doesn’t appear to be stopping some pilots.

Gary Baumgardner—@garybpilot on Instagram—posts photos of himself taken inside the cockpit. In one of them, above at left, he wrote, “About to land this plane but first, #lmtas,” shorthand for “let me take a selfie.” In another, the reflection in his sunglasses shows the tops of clouds and his hand holding what appears to be a phone.

“All of my pictures were taken on the ground (regardless of what the caption may have said) or either reposted as someone else’s picture,” Baumgardner wrote in an email. He has made his Instagram account private. Baumgardner is wearing an American Airlines lanyard in many of his photos. American didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Quartz attempted to contact all of the pilots whose photos are in this story, and most did not reply. Some deleted their accounts on Instagram, and others made them private.

Personal electronic devices

Once a pilot reaches cruising altitude, flying the plane becomes a simpler, sometimes even monotonous, activity. To pass the time on long flights, pilots are allowed by the FAA to eat, take bathroom breaks, read books, even work on a crossword puzzle.

It’s a different story for digital distractions. Under FAA rules, members of the flight crew aren’t allowed to use a laptop or ”personal wireless communications device” at any time while sitting in the two pilot seats. That includes any device that can transmit data through the air, such as cellular or WiFi, whether or not that functionality is active during flight.

See more:

Flowchart of FAA regulations

In April, the FAA clarified that the rule covers the entire flight:

Therefore, the prohibition on the personal use of laptop computers and personal wireless communications devices commences at taxi (movement of the aircraft under its own power) and ends when the aircraft is parked at the gate at the end of the flight segment.

In addition to phones, many pilots who post flight images to Instagram use small cameras manufactured by GoPro. Most of these devices, which are popular among action-sports enthusiasts, can connect to WiFi and therefore fall under the FAA rule. In the EU, GoPro cameras aren’t allowed to be used regardless of their wireless capabilities.

GoPro images.
GoPro images.
Image: Instagram

Balancing boredom and attention

Not all pilots agree with the rule, and many don’t appear to know its finer details. Some said the regulation is unrealistic and unnecessary, particularly on long-haul flights that last more than six hours. They would prefer rules that better balanced between managing boredom and the safety concerns of distraction.

Keith Cinfrani, an airline safety consultant and crash investigator, said that once a plane is at cruising altitude and set to autopilot, it is safe to pay less attention. ”As long as one guy is watching what’s going on, it’s fine,” he said.

In justifying its rule, the FAA cited a 2009 study (pdf) that found high-resolution displays can become an “attention sink” for pilots. The agency also referred to an incident when two pilots flew past their intended destination by 150 miles because they were both distracted by personal laptops.

Hoban, the veteran American Airlines pilot, said he doesn’t even approve of reading books while the plane is on autopilot. ”In a sense, you’re a systems manager at cruise altitude,” he said. ”It happens more often than you think that you have to correct what the plane is doing.”

There are some exceptions to the FAA rule:

  • Pilots are allowed to use an “electronic flight bag,” which is usually an iPad or other tablet containing the aircraft’s operating manual, maps, and other important documents that were previously kept in an actual bag. (But if that iPad were used to take a photo, it would be considered a personal device and thus not allowed under FAA rules.)
  • Personal devices can be used while sitting in the jump seat of an aircraft, typically occupied by an off-duty crew member but sometimes by pilots who are just taking a break.
  • The FAA rule doesn’t apply to general aviation and planes with no commercial passengers. All of the photos in this story appear to have been posted by commercial pilots, but it wasn’t possible to determine if there were passengers on all of the flights in question.

What the airlines say

Some airlines have held their pilots to stricter rules than required by regulators. Delta, for instance, asked the FAA to clarify that a personal device could include a phone issued by the airline, if it was being used for personal activities. The FAA agreed.

At Los Angeles International Airport, signs remind American Airlines employees about the company’s safety efforts. “You have no fear, if you can’t hear,” reads one. “No PEDs.”

Quartz contacted airlines that appear to employ pilots whose photos are used in this story. In addition to United, we heard back from British Airways, JetBlue, and Turkish Airlines.

British Airways said, “Safety is always our absolute priority and our pilots are trained to the very highest standard. We always have at least two pilots on each flight, and more for longer flights, and have strict rules to ensure there are no distractions at any point.”

JetBlue said, “Our policy states that pilots are only allowed to use issued Electronic Flight Bags in the cockpit and these can only be used for operational purposes during taxi, takeoff and during flight.”

Turkish said, “Please kindly be informed that the mentioned actions are not possible to be affectuated by our pilots, considering our company policies.”

We received no comment or didn’t hear back from KLM, Air France, Delta, American Airlines, Norwegian, Ryanair, Qatar Airways, Iberia, and Aeromexico.

Widely flouted rule

Despite the restrictions, photography by commercial pilots during flight appears to be widespread. Quartz found many more examples than are used in this piece, posted to Instagram by pilots working for regional Australian airlines to low-cost European carriers to the biggest names in US aviation.

Even the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world’s largest union of pilots, representing 51,000 of them in the United States and Canada, promotes its members’ photography, some of which may run afoul of FAA regulations. The latest issue of Air Line Pilot (pdf), the union’s magazine, includes some photos taken from the cockpit during flight, along with the pilot’s name and type of plane.

“No exaggeration necessary,” reads the tag line.

A spread from the Dec. 2014 issue of Air Line Pilot.
A spread from the Dec. 2014 issue of Air Line Pilot.

The ALPA defended the photos in a statement:

According to Federal Aviation Regulation 121.542, no flight crewmember on duty may engage in any activity that would distract them during critical phases of flight, which is defined as non-cruise flight below 10,000 feet altitude. None of the photos recently published in Air Line Pilot are in violation of, or jeopardize, this crucial safety rule.

ALPA regularly requests photographs from pilots and always issues the disclaimer that when taking photos, FARs and company policy must be followed at all times.

The union is hardly alone in contending that FARs—the Federal Aviation Regulations that serve as the bible for commercial flights in the US—don’t prohibit this kind of activity. Many pilots and aviation enthusiasts made similar arguments to Quartz after we made our reporting process public.

This is the relevant passage, cited by the ALPA, that forbids the use of phones, GoPro cameras, and similar devices through the entire flight:

(d) During all flight time as defined in 14 CFR 1.1, no flight crewmember may use, nor may any pilot in command permit the use of, a personal wireless communications device (as defined in 49 U.S.C. 44732(d)) or laptop computer while at a flight crewmember duty station unless the purpose is directly related to operation of the aircraft, or for emergency, safety-related, or employment-related communications, in accordance with air carrier procedures approved by the Administrator.

A spokeswoman for the FAA confirmed that a smartphone, even if set to airplane mode with no cellular or WiFi connectivity, counts as a personal electronic device that can’t be used. The EU’s EASA has similar regulations: ”Due to the higher risk of interference and potential for distracting crew from their duties, [portable electronic devices] should not be used in the flight compartment.”

Cameras are not forbidden at cruising altitude if they don’t have any wireless capabilities. It’s possible the photos in Air Line Pilot magazine were taken with such cameras.

John Delisi, director of aviation safety for the National Transportation Safety Board in the US, said ”it would not be hard for the FAA to determine” if pilots are breaking cockpit rules based on their photos posted to Instagram. “To prevent accidents, you want to be proactive” about discovering violations and preventing unsafe behavior, he said.

FAA staff occasionally ride along with pilots to ensure its rules are being followed, but it doesn’t appear that pilots’ accounts on social media are being monitored. The FAA said it was unaware of any investigations of or actions against pilots for violating the rule against PED use.

An issue of FAA Safety Briefing this year included “tips for safely recording your flights,” but the story (pdf, p. 28) was all about general aviation, which isn’t covered by the same rules as commercial flights.

Unsterile cockpits

Regardless of the rules at 10,000 feet, no one disagrees that photography is prohibited below that height, when pilots are required to maintain a sterile cockpit. That includes taxiing to the gate after landing and waiting on the tarmac to take off. Yet Quartz found many photos seemingly taken by pilots when the cockpit was supposed to be sterile.

Sitting on the runway.
Sitting on the runway.
Image: Instagram

The video below of a landing at Reagan National Airport was taken with a GoPro, according to its caption. (The video was deleted from Instagram after this piece was published.) Landing at Reagan is notoriously complex and unusually difficult due to its proximity to the National Mall and the Pentagon.

See the Video

The pilot, who appears to fly for ExpressJet, the world’s largest regional airline, didn’t respond to requests for comment. ExpressJet operates service for American Airlines, Delta, and United.

Sterile cockpit rules were instituted by the FAA in 1981 after several plane crashes were caused by flights crew members who were distracted during critical phases of flight. Similarly strict rules are widely followed outside the US in areas governed by other regulators.

How we reported this story

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has more than 300 million active users, making it more popular than Twitter. People who have access to rare vantage points—a plate of food at an exclusive restaurant or a selfie with a celebrity—are rewarded with hundreds or thousands of likes, digital votes of approval.

So it’s not surprising that the pilots of Instagram have gained a following or that they would want to share photos of their daily life in the skies. But the way Instagram works also makes it possible to keep tabs on these pilots and their activities, which is what Quartz did for the past six months.

Using Instagram’s public API, we looked for photos posted with hashtags commonly used by pilots: #pilotlife, #pilotsview, #cockpitview, #igpilotsoftheweek, and so on.

Employees at all levels of the airline industry appear to be active on Instagram. While pilots often tag their photos #pilotlife, cabin crew can be found under #crewlife, and tarmac employees are fond of #ramprat. The groups often tag the type of plane they’re working on, from #crj700 to #b747.

“The cellphone thing is so out of control these days,” said Keith Cianfrani, an airline safety consultant.

When we found a pilot with a public Instagram account who appeared to be posting photos taken in the cockpit, we looked for clues to confirm the pilot worked for a commercial airline. We looked for more photos from the account and tried to determine where they were taken from and at what point in flight. Soon, the international network of commercial pilots on Instagram came into view.

Instagram has a feel of intimacy, but unless a user makes her account private, the photos can easily be accessed by anyone. When we found a photo of interest for this story, we saved a copy ourselves in case the pilot later deleted the image. Only a fraction of the photos we found are used in this story.

We used captions, the photos themselves, and other information to determine as best we could if a photo was actually taken by the pilot who posted it. Sometimes pilots re-post photos taken by others. We also tried to determine if a photo was taken by device, like a phone or GoPro camera, that isn’t allowed to be used.

It wasn’t possible to determine the scale of safety lapses because many pilots have private accounts that we’re not allowed to access or post photos to other services, like Facebook and Twitter, that we didn’t monitor in the same way. All of the pilots whose photos appear in this story were contacted multiple times for comment through Instagram.