Flying with Camera Gear
Post Dec 25, 2009
What's Changed – What Hasn't?
Leica M9 with Tri-Elmar @ 35mm. ISO 250
On Christmas Day, 2009, a man attempted to blow up a Northwest jet flying from Amsterdam to Detroit using a plastic explosive sown into his underwear. The plan fortunately failed.
I was flying in the opposite direction across the Atlantic that same day, from Newark to Madrid on Continental, having suffered the usual hassles and indignities of flying, especially when burdened with camera gear.
My first thought on reading the news the next morning in Madrid was – Oh no. First it was shoes, then it was liquids in baggies, now it's going to be our jockey shorts that have to come off while we're waiting in line at security.
Has Anything Changed?
Over the following few days I read online that there were going to be all sorts of new rules and regulations. No wheeled carry-ons; only one carry-on bag allowed, no standing up to pee one hour before landing, no flight tracking displays to remind you of how many more hours of discomfort were yours to enjoy, and that even if you wanted to jump out now and end it all, it's -55C on the other side of the window.
After two weeks in the Canary Islands vacationing with friends and doing photography, virtually without internet access, and certainly no radio, TV or newspapers, when it came time to fly home I was very curious to see what changes the latest attack would have wrought to the already dubious joys of air travel.
Our route took us by car across La Gomera, by ferry to Tenerife, on an Iberia flight from there to Madrid, on a Continental flight from Madrid to Newark, and then another Continental flight from Newark to Toronto. Because we were unable to get connections that worked as well as they might, the whole trip took three days and required two overnights in hotels along the way. What fun.
The three flight segments were each in their own way different from what we had experienced on the way there three weeks before, but not in the ways that we had anticipated.
Outbound, before the Dec 25 incident, there wasn't much to report. Security in Toronto, Newark, Madrid and Tenerife was normal. Annoying and full of minor indignities as always, but unremarkable. Coming back though was another story.
Leica M9 with 90mm f/2 APO-Summicron @ ISO 160
What I Carried and How
Because this was more of a vacation than a "shoot" I traveling as lightly as possible. I had a small shoulder bag for my camera and lenses, though a moderate sized backpack would have done. I was using a Leica M9 with 7 lenses, and it along with a Panasonic GF1 with two lenses it all fit nicely into a smallish shoulder bag. I also had a computer bag (non-rolling) with my laptop, traveling papers, books etc.
On the trip home in mid-January I tried to be very observant of not only how my wife and I were being treated, but also how others with various types of carry on bags were dealing with things.
Firstly – I saw no changed in the types of sizes of bags that were allowed on any flight – and remember, over a three day period I was on flights internal in Europe, from Europe to the US, and from the US to Canada, so it gave me a decent cross section of what various countries and airlines are doing. Rolling carry-ons were still allowed. A carry-on plus a personal item was allowed (ie: a bag as well as a purse or small laptop bag).
From Tenerife in The Canary Islands to Madrid we saw little that would indicate that the world was on a heightened state of alert regarding flying, though I was aware that the security staff seemed to be a bit more serious and attentive than two weeks before. Security was efficient and competent.
Over the years I have learned to do the security strip down efficiently before getting to the walk-though magnetometer.
Shoes and coats off and in the bin along with my shoes, belt, watch, phone, keys and coins. Laptop out of the bag and in its own tray, with it already in standby mode in case they want to turn it on. I can them walk through the portal (holding my pants up with both hands) without setting it off, avoiding the necessity of a pat-down.
The flight from Madrid to Newark was a separate story. Initial security was pretty much as usual, and quite efficient. My camera bag went though X-ray without any notice, as it usually does.
But, then when we got to the gate area we encountered a new and separate security area. Here each passenger received a complete body pat down, and we were also asked extensive questions, such as when had we bought our tickets, from whom, had we made any changes to our travel plans, etc.
The next step was a complete teardown of each and every item in our carry-ons. This meant even books being opened to see that they weren't hollow. Every electronic device, cameras, laptops, phones, CD players, needed to be turned on and demonstrated. My camera bag had every camera body and lens removed and closely examined. This process took approximately 45 minutes, on top of the time spent at the usual first stage of security.
The only time that I have encountered security this intensive was about 15 years ago on an El Al flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv.
My guess is that this is now the new reality on flight coming to the US from abroad. They were quite serious and intense, and there were a number of men with guns and dogs keeping a watch out as everyone was scrutinized multiple times.
In Newark the connection to Toronto (we had to leave the secure area, transfer our checked baggage, and then re-endure another security check), was normal, but slower than usual. The TSA staff seemed more tense but also more diligent that I've seen them before. No additional screening this time, and no need to open my camera bag after the X-ray pass.
Panasonic GF1 with 45-200mm @ ISO 100
Parenthetically, at least on my Continental flights on Jan 13th the onboard nav display system was on, there were no restrictions on standing up, and we could go to the bathroom, as usual, right up until landing time. Thank goodness.
The New Normal
It's my guess that this is the new normal in air travel. Greater scrutiny, longer and slower lines, more hand inspections, and overall just a greater pain in the ass. No one would argue that we don't need the security, and I'm sure that some very bright people within the TSA and the airlines are working hard to try and minimize hassles for travelers whenever possible. But the plain truth (or plane truth, if you will) is that flying simply isn't a very enjoyable process any more, and it's my intention to do as little of it in future as I can. Cars, boats and trains are slower, but hey – I can and should learn to slow-down a bit more.
Panasonic GF1 with 45-200mm @ ISO 100
What I Do
People are always asking what I do about my camera gear when I fly. I've written about it before, but here goes again.
– My checked bag is always a large duffle with wheels. Inside are my clothes, and wrapped inside the clothes my tripod, (head removed and wrapped separately) as well as all cables, chargers, batteries, and non-fragile photo equipment. The only camera gear that I carry on is that which is expensive, fragile, and which I need to hit the ground running if I'm on a shoot.
– My carryon consists of two bags. My usual laptop bag which contains my computer, travel documents, medications, passport, books and such. I try and not use a rolling style camera bag anymore because they are often asked to be weighed, and it is bound to be overweight. If a bag doesn't have wheels the counter clerks almost never ask to weight it, especially if it's over your shoulder during check in or in a backpack on your back. Act as if it doesn't weigh much.
– My preferred camera backpack is my friend Andy Biggs' Kiboko bag. This bag weighs just 4 lbs empty and can carry a huge amount of gear, including long lenses. It has the best backpack harness system I've seen on any camera bag. Most backpack herness systems are fine when walking through airports, but don't do a proper and comfortable job on long hikes.
– Another alternative is a Pelican case. Just check the whole damn thing and lock it with a TSA lock, (or in Europe, have it shrink wrapped at the airport). Of course if your flight takes you to Paris and your bag ends up going to Stockholm it can put a crimp in your style, especially if you're on deadline or have critical travel connections to make.
– Pros on larger shoots are therefore increasingly renting their gear locally, and also shipping their heavier gear ahead by courier.
The bottom line then for air travel today by photographers is...
– Put your critical gear in a lightweight backpack. Check everything else, and pray that it gets there when you do.
– Don't use rolling camera bags. They're likely to be weighed.
– A good sized laptop bag can also carry an extra body and a couple of lenses, spreading the load and not raising too many suspicions about carry-on weight. But not one with wheels. Wheels raise weight suspicions.
– Be prepared at security. Have a routine planned for getting though quickly and efficiently. Wear loose shoes and remove metal items and put them in your bag before the buzzer sounds.
– When the trip or shoot is done and before departing for home, make sure that your files are in two seperate places so that if one bag or drive is lost, you will still have your shots. I also copy all my top files to a memorystick that lives on my keychain.
– If you don't have to cross an ocean, take the train.
Leica M9 with 135mm APO-Telyt. ISO 200
The photographs used to illustrate this article were
taken during a trip to La Gomera in the Canary Islands in January, 2010.
Shortly after the above was published I started to receive emails from Canadians pointing out that though I had discussed flying inside Europe, from Europe to the U.S., and from the U.S. to Canada, I had not been on a flight between Canada and the U.S. since the beginning of the new year.
Unbeknownst to me because I was in Europe at the time, there is now an almost absolute prohibition on ANY carryon luggage between Canada and the US. Below is the current (01/14/10) information from the Air Canada web site.
This is simply ridiculous and unacceptable. I can't believe that Canadian business travellers are not up in arms. Read respected Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer for a common sense perspective on this knee-jerk approach to security.
I have a shoot planned in California two weeks from now. I am seriously considering canceling it. I now can't carry my cameras on board, and I can't check them because when traveling to the US checked baggage can't be locked and insurance won't cover the loss. Would you check $20,000 – $50,000 worth of camera gear as baggage when airlines can't even get your shirts and socks reliably from one city to another?
I'll let you know what happens.
NB: The smallest purse or pouch allowed is 10X12X5.5 inches. This isn't large enough to carry a 15" laptop. But, the list shows that laptops are allowed, it's just that you can't put them in anything. The same with cameras. This is just plain nuts. Why aren't Canadian business travelers screaming over this?
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority has now issued some additional information on what items may be carried on aircraft flying from Canada to the U.S. This clarification does help, for example showing that an ordinary laptop style briefcase is allowed. Whew. But while it says that cameras and related equipment can be transported onboard in a "purpose-designed" carrying case, it does not specify what these might be like. Certainly no wheels allowed, but otherwise is it OK as long as it is otherwise of legal carry-on size and weight and designed to carry cameras gear. Not at all clear.
Frankly, the point of all of this, and the exceptions, eludes me. Is it simply to make less work for CATSA staff? Because otherwise it's hard to see how a camera bag with bodies and lenses and chargers and cables (purpose-designed or not), is any less of a threat than a businessman's roll-on briefcase stuffed with papers, which is prohibited.
UPDATE – Jan 20, 2010
There's good news today for photographers and others that fly from Canada to the U.S. with carry-on on bags. As reported by the site Flying With Fish, Transport Canada and CATSA have removed their onerous and arbitrary restrictions on carry-on bags, in effect since the fortunately aborted Dec 25 incident.
You can read more about it here. This means that photographers can once again travel with their photographic equipment in approriate bags, such as the Think Airport Security; Pelican 1514; Mountainsmith Parallax; and Gura Gear Kiboko Bag. Weight, of course, is still an issue, but that's always been the case.
Maybe the efforts of sites such as this in recent days, as well as industry associations and individuals who have been putting pressure on the bureacrats in Ottawa, had some small effect.