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Plane enthusiasts, Connecticut airport officials clash over hobby of photographing jets

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HARTFORD, Conn. - A group of aviation enthusiasts says it has been harassed by Connecticut airport officials for taking part in a well-established hobby that includes photographing planes and recording tail numbers.

Group spokesman Dennis Michaud, 63, of Wethersfield, said Thursday that the plane spotters went to the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut to complain after repeatedly being thrown off Bradley International Airport property and told by police their activities are illegal.

There have been heightened restrictions on airport access since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but Michaud said aircraft aficionados are doing nothing illegal.

He said the harassment began about two years ago, which is around the time the Connecticut Airport Authority took control of Bradley from the Department of Transportation.

Since then, he said, authorities have been getting increasingly more aggressive.

"They say, 'Get out of here, you're not supposed to be photographing airplanes,' and it got worse and worse and worse to the point where we were basically not allowed anywhere at the airport," he said.

The Connecticut Airport Authority responded to an ACLU inquiry this week with a letter that says the hobbyists can photograph in any public area of the airport.

"That is a well-established constitutional right," said David McGuire, a lawyer for the ACLU of Connecticut. "We're happy they recognized that."

The airport authority's executive director, Kevin Dillon, said the letter does not represent any change in policy. He said the spotters still will not be allowed in restricted areas because of liability and public safety concerns.

"At one point, staff here tried to accommodate them even in non-publicly accessible areas if they called in advance," he said. "This particular group did not want to do that."

The airport's perimeter road is public, but there is no parking along it, and people are not allowed to stop at the fence, he said.

Michaud said spotters, who typically carry cameras with large lenses, are being treated differently than people who jog along the perimeter road or walk there with their children or pets to watch the planes take off.

Trooper Kelly Grant, a Connecticut State Police spokeswoman, said officers ask the spotters to move when they receive calls from citizens reporting suspicious activity.

"Part of the problem with that is that we have other stuff going on also, and then we have to pull a trooper away" from more pressing matters, Grant said.

Michaud said many spotters are pilots. Others just enjoy looking at planes or sharing photos of planes with unique paint jobs. Many U.S. airports have designated areas for spotters; some have even built observation decks for them.

Dillon said they have told the spotters they are more than welcome at the airport's cellphone lot, where drivers wait for arriving passengers.

But Michaud said that lot has poor sight lines, and would not allow them to get good photos.

"What they don't realize is that we could be their best friends," Michaud said. "I know every inch of this airport and we are the ones who would actually notice if something was amiss."

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