Monday, February 4, 2013

Camera Gear, Tripods, TSA, and the Airlines

US Airway Airbus jet boarding in AtlantaTSA's (US Transportation Security Administration) website used to state, “You may carry on one (1) bag of photographic equipment in addition to one (1) carry-on and one (1) personal item through the screening checkpoint. The additional bag must conform to your air carrier’s carry-on restriction for size and weight.”
The problem is, since TSA was created, that was never true, nor is it today.
On both US domestic and international scheduled commercial flights, you are allowed no more than one carry-on and one personal item. The airlines haven't, nor do they expect to in the future, permit a third carry-on.

I know a few photographers who mistakenly believed that TSA page about photo equipment, which was thankfully taken down 2010. They were forced to check one of their carry-ons, by their airline. Some made the mistake of checking their camera bag, and when they retrieved it, found some or all of their equipment was missing or damaged.

Unfortunately, nothing seems to ever go away on the Internet, and cached copies of the defunct TSA “camera bag page” still show up from time to time, and catch unwary travelers. Don't let it be you.

At the gate, the airline's gate agent checking you through to board your flight will likely count the number of your carry-ons, and eyeball their size and weight. You might get away with an extra carry-on, but usually not. You might get away with a carry-on which is a little large and/or heavy, but recognize you're taking a chance. If you happen to get a gate agent who's having a bad day, watch out! Your oversized roller carry-on will then likely be refused entry to your airplane's cabin.
Suggestion: To give you more room in your carry-on and personal item, carry your camera/lens over your shoulder, or hang it from your neck (no super telephotos though) I've never seen any airline not permit that in addition to one's carry-on and personal item.
When I turn in my boarding pass and walk into a plane, my camera/lens (wide angle zoom, typically) is hanging from my neck. I'm wearing my photographer's vest to carry odds and ends. I'm wearing my photo equipment backpack. Admittedly, it's not exactly light, and its size may be somewhat of a stretch as a personal item, but as I'm wearing it, it's not yet been questioned. I also wheel in my roller carry-on. Its physical size conforms to every domestic and international airline standard. It even fits “endwise” into the old 737 overhead bins, which are about the smallest flying these days.

(Please note: Due to the small overhead bin, and overall cabin size, typically everyone must “gate check” roller carry-ons, when flying on regional jets and propeller driven aircraft.)

Let's talk about tripods.
Gitzo Traveler Tripod, Series 2, folded for packing
While TSA isn't the carry-on gate keeper, from a numbers, size and weight standpoint, they clearly are concerned with your carry-on baggage and individual items coming through their security checkpoint. They check to determine if your belongings are on their prohibited items list, and even if not on the list, if they're safe.

There is no doubt, that system-wide, TSA, and for that matter, their counterparts in airports throughout the world, have not made a definitive determination as to the safety of tripods, as, or in, carry-ons, on today's scheduled commercial airline flights.

TSA agents make their decision about whether or not passengers may bring a tripod into an airplane's cabin on a minute to minute, completely ad hoc basis. Therefore, I only have rules of thumb to help photographers bring tripods with them when flying.
If I have checked luggage, I pack my tripod in my checked luggage, sans head.
The head is in my carry-on. I carry-on the head because it's far more difficult to replace if its lost, stolen or damaged. To date, I've never had a tripod damaged or stolen, when packed in my checked luggage.

With regard to TSA, packing your tripod in your checked luggage is the safest way to bring it with you.

Believe it or not, TSA TSO's (Transportation Security Officers) have enormous flexibility in deciding what's allowed on airplanes and what's not. It doesn't have to be on the prohibited list to be refused.
Last September and October, for example, I saw a tripods in the outside pocket of a photo equipment backpack just peeking out, and one neatly strapped to the outside of a camera bag, refused to be allowed through TSA security. TSA TSO's required the two tripods be checked.

In the last year or so, I've not seen TSA refuse to permit tripods packed totally inside carry-on bags, sans spiked feet, but I have seen them refused in the past, and there is no telling what TSA might do in the future.
This I know for sure. If a traveler attempts to bring tripod as, on, or in carry-on, with spiked feet, it will be refused.
Beyond that, from my personal experience with TSA, and through interviews with them, if your tripod is wholly inside your carry-on, without spiked feet, it will most likely be permitted, but I can't say absolutely, positively. That's far too definite for TSA.

Experientially, I can guesstimate that you have a 50–50 chance, at best, getting your tripod into your airplane's cabin if you hand carry, or tie it to the outside of your carry-on. More than a few TSA agents consider tripods brought into airplane cabins, that way, potential weapons.

You've also have to get your tripod past your airline's gate agent. I've seen many gate agents refuse to allow tripods which were hand carried, even though TSA let them through. They force it to be at least gate checked and frankly, it's not likely to survive undamaged if gate checked.

I've see gate agents regularly refuse tripods, tied to the outside of carry-ons because they explain it violates the airlines linear size restriction for carry-ons. Frankly if it sticks past the top of the bag, it likely doesn't meet their linear size limitation.

Here's my strong suggestion. If you're taking a tripod, put it in your checked luggage, if any. For travelers with only carry-on bags, pack your tripod completely inside your carry-on and leave its spiked feet at home.


Julian - Brooklyn said...

Ned, I was sorry to hear about your father. I'm happy to see you're writing in the Blog again.

It's a great article. I didn't know I could carry my camera/lens separately. That will make it much easier to take my gear when traveling.


Stan - Philadelphia said...

Ned, I too am sorry to hear about your dad. I lost my father a couple of years ago and still miss him.

Which tripod is that shown in the article? Is that one you use?


Robert from Horsham PA said...

Ned, add my name to those wishing to convey my sympathies to you and your family.

I had the great pleasure to take a wildlife walk with you last year. I don't know if you remember me.

Thanks for the article. It will make my air travel easier.

Ned S. Levi said...

Stan, good to hear from you. Thanks. I certainly understand you loss.

That's a Gitzo Series 2 Traveler. I've put a Really Right Stuff BH-40LR head on it. Yes it's mine, and it's my primary general travel tripod.

I have other tripods, for use when using long lenses such as my 500mm.

Ned S. Levi said...

Robert, I do remember you. By the way, on March 16, at 8:00am, I will be leading another Wildlife Photo Walk at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. It's sponsored by the Friends of the Heinz Refuge Photo Group. Like all activities at Heinz, it's free. Everyone is invited to attend.

Thanks for your sympathies.

Jane E. - NYC said...

Excellent article. I will be following your advice for my camera and tripod next week. Thanks.

Sorry about you father.

Sam - Texas said...

Hi Ned,

Sorry about your dad. I lost mine last year too.

I flew on United out of Houston last week. My tripod was in my checked luggage (no problem). There was another passenger on the flight who tried to bring the tripod attached to his backpack. The gate agent required him to gate check it, and told him he was lucky he wasn't sent back to the ticket counter to check it in there.

I saw him in LA getting his checked luggage. The tripod was in one piece, but it had more than a nick or two in its legs from being gate checked. He said it will go in his checked luggage in the future.

Jim Sack said...

Hi Ned. Like everyone else, I'm sorry to hear about your dad. Mine died when I was two years old, and I lost my mom a number of years ago. Just focus on those wonderful memories and the years you had together!
Like all of your articles, I appreciate this one for it's practical uses. Like many photographers, I fly with my equipment, and packing/transporting is always a concern. Lately, getting on board a flight only to find the overhead bins already full, including the space above my seat, has been a particular annoyance! Thanks again for the article.

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