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I work for an FBO that has a LOA for Nonstop Commercial Air Tours, which are limited to a 25 statute mile radius of the airport. I was contacted by a man who is a semi-professional photographer who would like to be taken on a flight for the purpose of getting some nice pictures of mountains.

He says that because he is doing aerial photography that he should not be restricted to the 25sm radius per the exemption in 119.1(4)(iii). However, if this is the case, then all of our scenic flights conducted under the LOA would also be exempt, because the passengers always take pictures, and there would be no purpose in having the LOA.

So, what is the line between a Nonstop Commercial Air Tour conducted under a letter of authorization, and aerial photography?

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  • $\begingroup$ Is it in section 1 of the FARs? If not, if I'm a fed looking at this I am inclined to see it as an air tour as "aerial photography" generally refers to the industry, not to what a passenger does during a flight. Just my thought. Ask the customer for supporting documentation. $\endgroup$ – acpilot May 3 at 23:53
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Short answer: as far as I can tell, an air tour implies photography, but photography doesn't imply an air tour. The regulations define various criteria for determining if a flight is an air tour, but there's no 100% clear definition.


First, the regulatory definition of "commercial air tour" is in 14 CFR 110.2:

Commercial air tour means a flight conducted for compensation or hire in an airplane or helicopter where a purpose of the flight is sightseeing. The FAA may consider the following factors in determining whether a flight is a commercial air tour: [...]

It's worth reading the "following factors", by the way.

Second, there's no formal definition of "aerial photography". See the Sapp (2007) interpretation (emphasis in the original):

In a 1989 interpretation, the FAA discussed the meaning of "aerial photography" [...]
the phrase was not defined in the regulations [...]
"aerial photography" connotes a condition where taking pictures or filming is done from the air

Third, the Ragland (2015) interpretation specifically mentions photography as one purpose of an air tour (emphasis mine):

Specifically, you asked whether §119.l(e)(4) allows persons to conduct commercial air tour operations, for purposes of sightseeing and photography, without obtaining either a letter of authorization (LOA) in accordance with §91.14 7 or a commercial operating certificate in accordance with part 119 of the federal aviation regulations.

You assert that the conclusion in a January 5, 2011 interpretation issued by our office "appears to reinforce the need for Operators to apply for a LOA from their local FSDO to conduct 'sight-seeing tours' within a 25 statute mile limitation under 14 CPR 91.147." We agree.

Finally, the same interpretation says you can't operate a commercial air tour under the aerial photography exemption:

We further note that the exception in §119.1(e)(4) for certain "aerial work operations," such as banner towing, aerial photography or survey, and powerline or pipeline patrol, does not extend to air tour operations in which the primary purpose is sightseeing.

So, putting all that together - and remembering that I'm just SGOTI - it appears that:

  • Air tours within 25SM require an LOA and are assumed to include photography
  • "Aerial photography" is a separate activity from "sightseeing"
  • The FAA seems interested in the "primary purpose" of the flight

In your scenario, it sounds like the photographer is asking for a straightforward aerial photography flight: the primary purpose is to take photographs, not to get a tour of an area. And if the photographer actually makes money from their work, that's a strong indicator that they aren't just "sightseeing". But that's just my opinion.

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The regulations (cited by @Pondlife) are pretty vague, so consider what the FAA is likely concerned about: who is put at risk and how it will affect ATC operations, and the typical usage of the two terms shows vastly different natures:

An air tour is frequently flown and nonstop, and each time the several passengers will be different members of the general public for the purpose of seeing (weather permitting) the same things with their eyeballs. If they happen to take photos to memorialize the trip, that is incidental.

Aerial photography/survey is generally a one-time flight directly to the area to be photographed, loitering over that area to get the photos required, and then returning directly. They typically have a single passenger who is a professional photographer specializing in aerial work and often a pilot themself, not a member of the general public.

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I spoke with our POI at the FSDO and he said that the flight would be exempt since it's aerial photography. We're still limited to departing and arriving at the same airport. That doesn't completely answer my original question, but at least I know the flight will not raise any eyebrows at the FAA. Thank you for the responses.

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