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Monday, January 1, 2007

Air Travel And Carrying On Gear

A few things to help deal with the current clear and present carry-on hassles

Book ‘Em, Dano!WHACK! The bear's huge paw connected squarely with my face. Even though I saw it coming, there was nothing I could do because my seat belt was already fastened. Seat belts in the wild? Not on your life, I was in a jet plane. But do they really let live bears on board a jet? Well, once you let snakes on a plane, what do you expect?

Okay, okay...this was just a stuffed bear, but it was gigantic—at least four feet tall. And it was being lugged down the narrow aisle, along with a full-sized pillow and a huge, overstuffed backpack bursting at the seams with dirty laundry, by a headphone-wearing, sleepy-eyed teenager. The fabric-filled ursus managed to maul everyone sitting in the aisle seats between the plane's front entrance and its owner's assigned seat in a rear row.

At times like these, a total ban on carry-on luggage, as happened briefly in Britain after the recent security scare involving possibly explosive liquids and gels, doesn't seem too unreasonable. But for those of us who need to carry on things more valuable and fragile than dirty sweat socks and oversized teddy bears, the prospect of such a ban is a nightmare waiting to come true.

The big questions haunting photographers, if my e-mail in-box is any indication, are: "Will they ban or heavily restrict carry-ons on a permanent basis?" and "What can we do about it?" I wish I had the magical solution to this conundrum that many people think I do. But I don't.

I will tell you that if it were up to the august editors of The New York Times, there would be a ban on all carry-ons. A recent editorial advocated such a move, saying that businessmen would just have to learn to live without their laptops and Blackberries during their flights. It seems that's the only type of traveler the editorial writer could imagine who might be inconvenienced, let alone have his or her profession threatened, by such a ban.

Although I'm often in agreement with the editorial writers of The Gray Lady, I shook my head in disbelief at this shortsighted proposal. It's ironic (and not unlikely) that the very writer of that piece might also be responsible for firing the first Times staff photographer who came back from a major news event without pictures because his checked bags and cameras ended up in Missoula while he, and the hurricane and flooding images he was sent to procure, were all in Miami!

So banning all carry-ons is an extreme and probably unwise policy. But there's no telling what may happen if there's another scare (or worse) involving weapons or explosives carried onto a commercial aircraft by passengers. A total ban certainly eliminates that security problem.

Unfortunately, many of the carry-on solutions proposed thus far are like that of The New York Times' editorial writer: unworkable and naive. A lawyer needs his laptop and his spare Armani suit for his big day in court as much as I need my cameras and computers to shoot a story or a musician needs her instrument or a salesman needs his samples.

There's a workable solution that could be implemented before imposing a total ban on carry-ons, however. It would greatly reduce the burden of the TSA screeners, enhance security, free up room in the overhead bins of airliners and still allow photographers, musicians, and other itinerant professionals and enthusiasts to pursue our crafts all over the world. Basically, the only workable solution to the prospect of a total ban of carry-on baggage is to charge money—maybe $50 a bag or more—for carry-ons.


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