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.
Yes, I hear your howls and feel your pain, and I don't much like it either, but a strictly enforced "pay-to-play" plan for carry-ons would, by the nature of free-market forces, greatly alleviate both the current glut of junk being carried on board and the subsequent security risks. It would be far preferable to consigning our precious gear to the hold of the airplane, where it's subject to misdirection, brutal handling and outright theft.
Were they adamant about enforcing it, this solution might also allow the airlines to make enough money to banish the huge bags of duty-free liquor and cigarettes people carry on or buy on board. Realistically, duty-free shops make tons of money, and it's safe to assume that duty-free merchants have crackerjack lobbyists and lawyers on retainer to protect their cash cow. But I can dream, can't I?
What about now? Despite easing the total ban, British airports still have in place such strict weight and size restrictions on carry-ons as to render carrying on even a modest camera outfit—say two D-SLR bodies, three lenses and a flash—all but impossible. Want to carry on a laptop computer and all its peripherals along with that? Fuhgetaboutit!
What can we do now to alleviate or prepare for worsening carry-on rules like these should they reach beyond the British Isles? What's the magical solution for the current situation?
Well, brace yourselves. There's no pat solution or easy work-around. There are only small measures we can take and compromises we can make to try to work around the sometimes-Draconian rules that arise in times of heightened security. The following are a few things I'm doing to deal with the current clear and present (and possibly future) carry-on hassles.
Check Your Insurance. It's almost inevitable that more of our gear will be going in the hold in the future, so take some time to check the details of your homeowner or camera insurance. Explore the possibilities of extra insurance for checked baggage. Keep detailed lists of gear (and serial numbers) you pack in checked bags. I recently read the fine print on an airline ticket that said that $2,600 per lost bag was the limit of their liability, but not a guaranteed remuneration figure. If you have paperwork to prove what you've lost, your claim will go faster and easier.
Camouflage Checked Bags. We love the gear protection provided by aluminum and molded plastic cases. Unfortunately, these types of cases also scream "valuable stuff worth stealing." I've taken to putting my Lightware, Pelican and Storm Cases inside green, canvas duffel bags to make them look more innocuous.
An acquaintance who does a lot of dive travel and photography spray-painted all his luggage and gear bags with big, obnoxious red polka dots. His reasoning was that, if lost, they would be easier to identify and track down, and if stolen, they'd be a whole lot harder to inconspicuously slip out of an airport!
I also put large stickers inside my checked bags with all my contact information and big red letters reading "Reward If Found." I'd rather buy it back from a possible thief myself than have it go to some unscrupulous pawnshop.
If you haven't done so already, get the TSA-approved luggage locks for your checked bags. Granted, they're not tamperproof or heavy duty, but at least these locks will prevent casual pilfering.
Travel Lighter. Do you really need that auxiliary battery pack that adds height and weight to the camera body in exchange for 6 fps performance instead of 4 fps? How about that 300mm ƒ/2.8? Could you get by with a much smaller, lighter 300mm ƒ/4? Why are you carrying on your tripod? Isn't it rugged enough to survive in your checked bag, wrapped up in socks and underwear? These are the hard questions we need to ask ourselves in light of 21st-century air travel.
Early in my career, I shot a story about an expert backpacker who was fanatical about weight conservation with his gear. He actually cut the handle down on his toothbrush and shaved some millimeters off the soles of his hiking shoes just to save a couple ounces of weight. His thinking was that every little bit helps. I've taken his advice to heart my whole career, especially these days.
Currently, I'm experimenting with the Nikon D80. It's smaller and lighter (and cheaper!) than my beloved D200, but it has the same-sized sensor (and high-quality image capture). It's missing some of the bells, whistles and ruggedness of the D200, but is the trade-off worth it to me (and my spine) in terms of saved size and weight? I'll keep you posted.
I'm experimenting with smaller lenses, too. My camera's APS-sized sensor means most of my lenses have a 1.5x magnification effect. I've always been frustrated by smaller, slower wide-range zooms, but I'm reexamining lenses like the 18-200mm VR Nikon, and smaller, faster lenses with less range like the 50-150mm ƒ/2.8 Sigma. It gives me the same basic coverage as a 70-220mm zoom on a 35mm body, but is about half the size and weight of my current 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 VR zoom.
Will these compromise items replace my larger workhorse gear? Probably not. But if they'll shave off crucial weight in carry-on situations when an extra ounce or two might mean the difference between carrying gear on board or sending it to the hold, they're worth their weight in petroleum, er, platinum.
If all these measures prove futile, what then? Fear not! I'm talking to a camera bag manufacturer about a new design that will hold enough gear for an entire large newspaper photo staff, but be completely carry-on compatible. I can't say more, other than it's huge, white, plastic and says in big red letters: "Duty Free..."