The Digital Journalist
The Realities of Flying in the Post 9/11 World for Photographers
March 2004

by Dirck Halstead

Like most photojournalists, I spend a lot of time on airplanes.

In the months right after 9/11, I avoided flights as much as possible. I simply did a lot of driving. But within a few months, things seemed to be returning to some sort of normalcy. In most cases, arriving at the airport an hour ahead of time was sufficient. Even major airports around the world were able to process passengers, especially those flying with electronic tickets in a reasonably efficient manner. I reduced the amount of baggage I was traveling with. If I needed equipment for a shoot, I would send it ahead by FedEx.

But after attending the PMA show in Las Vegas last month, I realized how much things have changed. I arrived at the airport an hour before an 8:15 flight, and when I tried to check my bag at curbside, I was told that the flight was already closed. I then tried to check in at the ticket counter. Because of all my traveling, I have an American Airlines Advantage Gold card, which means I can go through first class check, which speeds things up enormously. However, the ticket counter agent told me that indeed my flight was already closed. I couldn't believe that an hour before flight time it was already too late, and proceeded to the security check in, now toting the bag that I would have normally checked. Once on the gate floor, a line that went further than the eye could see confronted me. 45 minutes later, I finally arrived at the checkpoint. It was barely possible at this point to still make the flight if I ran. I got a sinking feeling as I watched the x-ray operator stop my bag as it went through the machine, and start to re-screen it. Sure enough, a security person said the dreaded words, "We need to manually search your bag!"

For the next 10 minutes, the screener went through my bag, layer by layer, and found nothing. Unfortunately what that meant was my bag had to go back through the x-ray. After another scan, the screener asked "Do you have a leatherman in your bag?" BINGO, I remembered that I always carry my leatherman in the bag I would normally check. However, because the curbside check-in wouldn't take the bag, now I was trying to get a potentially lethal weapon through security. Looking at my watch, I realized my flight was now gone, so I asked to be escorted back through security, and start the whole process over with a new booking. If I had tried to make the flight, I would have had to surrender my beloved leatherman never to see it again. The screener told me that they impound hundreds of items like this every day, which are all sent to a junk disposal.

So, back to the ticket counter, where I was able to rebook on an 11:50 flight to Austin, and this time was able to check the offending bag.

At Starbucks, an hour later, after once again going through the security line, I ran into another traveler who told me that he had arrived at the airport at 5 am for a 7:30 flight, on a Sunday morning, and he missed it.

I can now claim without hesitation that the Las Vegas airport is the worst I have ever encountered in the world for security delays.

So from this experience, I can now recommend some tactics for the traveling photographer:

ASSUME THAT THE SECURITY LINE WILL TAKE AN HOUR. Las Vegas may be an anomaly, but as we get into the summer travel season, more airports will face these delays. Arrive at least two hours before flight time.

DO NOT PLACE ANY OBJECTS, SUCH AS LEATHERMEN in your bags. Even if you are checking a bag, many airlines now x-ray those bags, and an offending item may cause the bag to be rescanned, opened, and searched. This can result in the bag not making the flight. Also avoid traveling with such items as jeweler screwdrivers that are used to tighten screws in your lenses, or mini tool kits. In the minds of security people, these little items represent tools that can be used to take apart a plane in flight. Security will impound these items, and it will be the last you see of them. They also, by the way, consider gaffer tape a danger, because you could tie up crew members.

WEAR SHOES THAT CAN BE EASILY REMOVED. Most security check points now require to you to remove your shoes before going through the metal detectors.


UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ENGAGE IN CONVERSATION WITH THE SECURITY PEOPLE. Answer any questions they have. Avoid any sort of jokes, or indication of annoyance. Just shut up and go through the process.

DO NOT WEAR SUNGLASSES WHEN GOING THROUGH A CHECK POINT. This also especially applies to going through customs. Agents are looking at you and checking you out. Sunglasses mean they can't read your eyes, and immediately arouses their suspicions that you are hiding something. By the way this rule applies if you are ever pulled over by a police officer. Get those shades off your face immediately!

KEEP TO THE TWO-BAG RULE. The ASMP and Editorial Photo site has recently gotten the FAA to make a special rule that allows photographers to carry a 3rd bag carrying cameras onto a plane. You can bet that most gate agents are unaware of this rule. If you try to prove your point, it immediately makes you a trouble some case, especially at a busy gate, and they will probably deny you permission to board with that 3rd bag.

TRY TO TRAVEL FIRST CLASS. Most clients and organizations will not pay for first class travel. However, pick a carrier that serves most of the locations that you are likely to travel to, and use it for every trip you can. If you travel a lot, you can quickly be moved up to a Gold or Platinum traveler which can mean that you get a next class upgrade. When you get to the security area, it can make all the difference in the world. At Las Vegas, for example, there was a first class line that bypassed the long security. It meant that those passengers could get to their gate in a few minutes, rather than an hour.

SHIP EQUIPMENT AHEAD. If you require large items, such as lighting equipment, heavy tripods, etc, send them ahead to your destination hotel by FedEx or UPS. If you send them ahead a few days before your trip, you can take advantage of low rates that will be cheaper than excess baggage charges. You can bill your client for these charges.

IF YOU ARE STILL USING FILM, DO NOT REQUEST A HAND SEARCH. Unless you are carrying 800 ASA film, the chances are the X-ray will not affect it. In most cases security people will not want to hand inspect. You are entitled to ask, but don't be surprised if you get an argument. You DO NOT want an argument! Better to change to digital.

IF POSSIBLE DRIVE. Evaluate your total time in travel to the destination, taking into account security, flight delays, etc. For example, if I were going to LA from Las Vegas, it would be cheaper and faster to rent a car and drive the 4 hours.


© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist