Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

March 2003- Updated March 2004*

Tip of the Month

Let's Cover Our Butts with
the Carry-On Luggage Issue
with the Airlines!

*The text that follows was written one year ago, as of March 1, 2004. Since then, TSA -- the governments airline security service -- has ruled that photographers, musicians, etc. are allowed to bring on two carry-on pieces, as TSA recognizes the fragility and value of this equipment. Unfortunately, that's TSA's ruling but it HOLDS NO WEIGHT with the airlilnes. The airlines are still free to choose to limit passengers (including photographers) to one carry-on bag and one small personal item. Some airlines may, and I say may, allow two carry-on pieces, but that's up to the carrier airline. You may argue, and perhaps will do so successfully, if you attempt to carry on two large pieces, especially if you can show the attendent the expensive gear and the need for you to keep that gear in your possession. However, just citing TSA's ruling may not be enough. To cover your butt, call your carrier before you fly and check what their policy is, and then decide from there. Otherwise ... read what follows and then take action, as I've urged!

The Text...

As you must know, Mary and I travel a great deal by air, and there are few times when our guts are not knotted while we wait to board, worrying whether we'll be hassled about our carry-on luggage or whether we'll be able to get some overhead space to place this luggage. Over the years we've scaled back tremendously with what we carry on-board, and now virtually all of our nonessential items are packed in our checked bags -- hopefully to arrive at our destination when we do and not be lost, or stolen. It's a gauntlet that is growing old, but the latest comments I heard from a NorthWest Airlines cabin attendant made my blood run cold.

Mary and I were flying back to the states from Arusha, Tanzania. Arusha is a busy airport because of the volume of Kilamanjaro climbers that visit. Many of the climbers boarding the plane had their backpacks with them -- presumably filled with clothes and boots and whatever else they needed for a climb. Many, too, had souvenirs -- carvings, etc. A large amount of the stuff I saw carried on board would not, could not, fit into the 'size-wise' templates supposedly required for overhead luggage, which generally measure 19 or 20 inches on the longest side.

When everyone boarded there was chaos, with everyone going for overhead bins. The last ones on the plane were out of luck, and they complained about the lack of space. AND THAT'S WHEN I HEARD THE CHILLING COMMENT.

"This is going to be just like smoking! They've banned that on planes, and soon it will be carry-ons too!" whined one of the attendants. Later, I spoke with one of the stewards about the comment I overheard, and I expressed these thoughts, which all of us air travelers must consider -- and must broadcast.

1. Much of the stuff carried on to the plane is junk. I'm sure many of you have seen the same type of crap carried on board that I have: People with backpacks for camping, or huge, well-oversized gym or soft bags filled with clothes, or kids returning from Disney World with gigantic stuffed animals, or dragging 'toy carry-on bags' or backpacks. Could most of this stuff be checked? More importantly, could it sustain being tossed into a luggage bin, or survive falling off a luggage conveyor that's feeding a cargo hull twenty or more feet above the tarmac? I'd suspect so, and I'd suspect what's carried on board does not have the same value as the camera equipment we carry.
2. Airlines will not guarantee the safety of checked bags. They recommend not checking valuables -- money, jewelry, electronic equipment, etc -- because of the threat of theft or breakage. In researching this Tip, I learned that the airlines insure each ticketed passenger for $2,500, but that does not cover fragile or delicate items -- AND CAMERAS AND LENS ARE DEFINED AS SUCH! So, they're not covered.
I then asked if you could buy extra insurance, and you can, but again, those types of items are not insurable
3. Personal insurance should cover loss or damage, but how many times will claims be honored before a policy is canceled? On our last trip, my carry-on had a 600mm F4 and a 500mm F4 (Mary and my big lenses), and about 100 rolls of exposed film. Mary's carry-on had 4 camera bodies (2 1Vs, 2 EOS 3s, all with motor drives), 1 D30 camera body, 2 100-400 lenses, and 100 rolls of film. That's around $20,000 worth of equipment. Granted, if lost, our insurance would have covered it, but I really doubt that they'd want to renew my policy, and I'm sure if I had a second claim -- which could happen, for the amount of travel we do -- I'd expect my insurance to be canceled. Insurance companies are not anxious to pick up new, high-risk customers, so I'd run a huge risk of becoming uninsured.
4. The airline representative I spoke with advised me to buy a heavy padded camera case to check in my gear. Here's two points to consider if you contemplate that route: 1.TSA, the new Federal airline security authority, requires checked luggage to be UNLOCKED. You may request, at the time of check-in, to have your bags inspected and to then ask a TSA inspector to lock your luggage when the inspection is complete. However, inspections may occur behind the scenes and you may not be there during an inspection. Also, if luggage is rummaged through, the TSA people repack -- you cannot touch your luggage! So ... they may pack gear, or padding, in a fashion that's not too protective. 2. A well-known wildlife photographer did indeed use a Pelican-style camera case and checked his equipment from Nairobi to home, on the west coast of the US. The case was locked, and was locked when he picked up the case at the baggage claim. Only thing, the case was empty! Somewhere en route, someone with master keys opened the locks and removed the equipment.
5. Using a padded Pelican-style case presents two problems: 1. For thieves, the case may scream - STEAL ME! If it is disguised by a label -- WARNING, FECAL SAMPLES or WARNING, BIOLOGICAL MATERIAL, you might discourage a camera thief but the case now may be subject to inspection, quarantine, or you to charges of fraud or worse. 2. Cases can no longer be locked, and you'll have to get TSA cooperation to lock equipment after inspection.
6. Airlines suggest you simply ship your equipment and film to your destination. This would work in the US, but it sure could add up to some expense. I'd hate to think about the shipping costs for regularly shipping my big lenses, but if necessary, I could do so. However, overseas shipping is another matter. I've had mixed data regarding shipping equipment to Kenya. Some say there's no problem (the comment of one tour operator), others say that the gear will be subject to a 100% import duty or tariff, or will simply be stolen and sold on the black market when a customers inspector sees what is inside (the comment of another tour operator!). I'm reluctant to ship gear that may end up being inspected by a corrupt official who sees his kids entire private school tuition paid for by stealing the gear and selling it to a local camera shop in Nairobi.
7. Carry-ons are conveniences so that people do not have to wait for their luggage. There is little real regulation about the size of gear people are carrying on with many airlines, while others, like British Air or Quantas, scare the pants off me with their strictness and unreasonableness at times.

So, what is the solution? When I spoke with the airline rep, he agreed that the point I'm about to make made sense, but he said airlines have received a lot of great suggestions from guys like himself which have gone nowhere. However, here is a viable solution:

Carry-ons are either a necessity or a convenience. For a businessman who is simply carrying enough clothes for an overnight trip or the documentation needed for a meeting, and for a musician or a photographer or anyone else with valuable gear that could be broken, carry-on's are a necessity. In either case, whether a necessity or a convenience, people that need to carry on gear should, and probably would, be willing to pay for that luxury.

For those carrying nonsense or nonessential items who simply don't want to wait for checked bags, well, obviously time is money, so charge for this convenience.

I suspect that if the airlines would charge $25 per carry-on bag that the overhead bins would be virtually empty. I doubt if people would pay the extra cash to pack dirty laundry, or backpacks, or non-essential clothes, or toys or stuffed animals, or any of the other innumerable items we've seen in overhead bins if they had to pay for the privilege and convenience. For a professional, for a businessman that needs his or her carry on, it'd be a business expense. For a photographer or a musician it would be likewise, even if (like many professional photographers) the expense would hit us in wallets that are rarely overflowing with cash. If airlines follow up on my attendant's threat, if carry-on luggage becomes restricted or prohibited, the alternative for photographers is 1. risking lost or broken or stolen gear; 2. having insurance policies canceled, or 3. not flying.

I'd urge you to address your concerns to the airline industry. Charge for carry-on luggage and our problems are solved.

One request: If you have contact information for various airlines, please forward this info to me at and I will post this information on a special bulletin board. I'd urge everyone to get involved in this campaign. Here's an address to get started:

Customer Relations-Northwest Airlines
Mail Stop C6590
5101 Northwest Drive
St. Paul, MN 55111

United Airlines
Customer Relations-WHQPW
P.O. Box 66100
Chicago, IL 60666

or to use the internet to provide feedback for United Airlines:,1451,2076,00.html


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