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Observation Deck

Kudos to Phoenix and Zurich


Increased security concerns have come into conflict with photography and aircraft spotting on occasion; in reality, this should not be a problem.

I’ve been taking photos of airliners for over 40 years, and have been fortunate to witness, and hopefully, preserve a fair amount of airline history on film, and more recently, via digital photography. At one time, this was a lot easier than recently; many airports had observation decks/areas where the public was encouraged both to view and in virtually all cases, photograph airport operations.

Over time, most of these publicly-accessible locations disappeared, for a variety of reasons. “Security” was cited in a number of instances, but generally without any specific reasons. In some cases, there may have been legitimate concerns about access and security, but much of this probably could be traced to something approaching excessive caution, rather than directed at a specific threat. Airports like Zurich, Switzerland continued to operate successful observation decks and viewing areas while addressing security concerns. ZRH actually took visitors out to a secure (enclosed) area near the runway via bus, and this proved to be quite popular; apparently the general public continues to have an interest in our industry.

The events of September 11, 2001 caused a great deal of concern, understandably. This led to the “see something, say something” paradigm in the U.S., where “concerned citizens” were urged to call the authorities if they observed something ‘suspicious’. Unfortunately, some of the general public interpreted aircraft photography and ‘spotting’ as falling into this category, which led initially to some misguided attempts by law enforcement personnel, sometimes resulting in statements that photography of airliners was “illegal”, or “against FAA regulations” To the best of my knowledge, this has not been and is not true in the U.S. In at least one instance in the Washington, DC area, a “concerned citizen” took a spotter’s JP aircraft fleet listing book (a standard reference utilized widely throughout the commercial aviation industry) out of his car while he was not looking; this was resolved in favor of the enthusiast by the police.

After the initial concern abated, there were airports where these problems were dealt with effectively. In the Washington, DC area, the local spotters group worked with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (which operates Dulles and Reagan National) to establish a procedure that would address both the needs of enthusiasts and law enforcement personnel. Nearby Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International has continued to operate its popular outdoor parking/viewing area on the airport’s southern perimeter. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International at one point asked that photographers call to get permission to take pictures from inside the terminal and gate areas; sensibly even this modest requirement has since been rescinded.

There are positive aspects to having designated areas for photographers and spotters. These individuals are generally knowledgeable about airport and airline operations, and, as keen observers, can serve as additional sets of eyes to be aware of, and report truly suspicious activities. For that matter, having people engaged in these legitimate activities in a specific location enables law enforcement and security personnel to concentrate on individuals elsewhere that might actually constitute a risk. Also, most spotters and photographers have no problem discussing their activities with the authorities when approached in a professional manner. Which brings us to the reason for this issue’s title.

Recently, I was at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, camera in hand. While there isn’t a formal ‘deck’ at this location, the roof-top parking garages can be utilized for photography (and aircraft ‘spotting’, for those that forego a camera). They also allow the photographer to remain in the shade on hot days, by staying below the top floor. I’d engaged in this activity here on a number of previous occasions, without problem. This time, however, two police officers came around the corner, looked at me…and smiled and waved.

I saw the officers again later and complimented them on their pleasant and professional approach to my presence. One remarked that “We get people from all over the world here”, and seemed proud that PHX merited this status. It’s always nice to deal with courteous, well-informed professionals. All of us want the airline industry to be safe and secure; there’s no reason this can’t co-exist with people that actually enjoy the airline industry. ZRH sums this up well on the airport’s website: “At observation deck B, young and old alike can experience the fascination of flying close up.” A security check is required, of course. And, contrary to some, it continues to be a fascinating business.

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