Dealing With Changing TSA Requirements

In Spring 2017 the United States began banning some electronic devices from being carried on board planes bound to the US from the Middle East. The UK soon followed. 

Basically any product with a battery in it that was larger than a smartphone was included in this broad ban. That included tablets, laptops, DVD players, and unfortunately cameras (the UK doesn't ban cameras). Basically any electronics item with a battery in it that was larger than 160x93x15mm in size was banned on the direct to US flights. Some large wireless headphones were also included in the ban. 

The stated reason for the ban is that terrorists have come up with a bomb design that mimics batteries in those devices and is indistinguishable from a real battery in traditional X-Ray examination. I won't get into the illogic of the ban—standalone batteries are allowed on the plane, for example, and you can remove the battery from a camera—as that is just a can of angry worms that doesn't get us anywhere fast. 

So let's start with the current ban. As I write this, the ban is being applied on all direct flights to the US from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, and from all direct flights to the UK from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey. 

What happens today is that most airlines at airports in those Middle Eastern countries have an additional security step at the gate, and the banned items are then required to be checked at the gate. How that "checked at the gate" is done seems to vary with different airlines, but most seem to be dealing with this using dedicated containers that they then put in the cargo hold of the flight. Some go so far as to bubble-wrap items for you to protect them, but I wouldn't count on that. 

Note that lenses are not included in the banned list, only camera bodies (and tablets and laptops, et.al.). 

When you get to the US, the items that were taken off at the gate check are returned to you at or near baggage claim. You'll have to inquire with your airline as to where to go to pick up your gate-checked item. Note that if you're coming into the US at one airport and then transferring to another flight to get to your home city, you should allow for extra time at that US entry airport (where you have to clear customs, and may even have to leave the security area to claim your gate-checked item). 

Here's the bigger problem: this ban was enacted relatively quickly and without warning, catching some travelers off guard while they were abroad. For some time now, the Department of Homeland Security here in the US has been discussing extending this ban to all international flights coming into the US, particularly from Europe. Thus, it is entirely possible this summer that you get overseas on a trip and find that the security requirements have changed while you were traveling. I've got an upcoming trip where I go from Africa to Europe, and then home to the US. It's even possible that security requirements could change while I'm in the air to Europe on that trip. 

So how do you best deal with this potentially changing situation?

Some suggest that you use Pelican-type cases and baggage check your gear. I'd tend to balk at that. Over the years it has become obvious to baggage handlers that Pelican-style cases carry interesting and valuable gear. They're subject to more theft than regular duffels and luggage is. Indeed, so much so that if you ever do have to check a Pelican-style case, I strongly suggest that you put it inside an appropriate sized duffel, so it isn't so obvious that it's a Pelican-style case from just visual observation.

But there's another reason why you don't want to baggage check valuable electronic and camera gear: the airlines won't insure it from damage or loss (moreover, even if they did the maximum loss coverage would probably be less than the value of the gear). Over decades of air travel I've had multiple LCD screens broken by rough handling in baggage (when I've not been able to hand carry those items), none of which were compensated for. Another problem with using Pelican cases: the weight of both the case and the gear makes it far more likely you'll be paying extra chargers for your luggage.

So what should you do to be prepared?

  • Minimize gear subject to the ban. Do you really need three camera bodies? Or a big laptop? Or a tablet instead of a large phone? Really think through your travel. Will you really be in situations where you'll be using that tablet and/or laptop? Do you have (or are willing to buy) a smaller, simpler laptop that isn't so valuable? 
  • Carry extra lens caps and body caps. You can carry lenses onto the plane, but not bodies. You shouldn't be traveling with lenses attached to bodies in the first place, but I know you do, so bring extra caps. 
  • Get basic protection. At a minimum, use a sleeve-type protector for your tablet and laptop. Apple now sells such a sleeve for the latest 10.5" iPad, but you can find similar sleeves at Apple stores, Best Buy, and a host of other locations. Better still, go hard shell. Pelican makes very compact, lockable cases for tablets and laptops [advertiser links]. These are just small enough to fit into auxiliary pockets on the carry-on bags I typically use, so it's not a terrible burden. Moreover, if for some reason I did have to put the tablet/laptop in my checked luggage, I'd have some further protection for the devices via these hard cases. You can do the same thing for camera bodies, too, using the small Nanuk cases [advertiser link; Nanuk makes several different sizes, with this one being about right for a consumer DSLR]. But they don't fit into my usual carry-on bags, so really only suffice for if I had to check my cameras. I now have two of these in my checked bags just in case, and I pack them with something else when the camera isn't in them.
  • Use a label-maker. I long ago started labeling all my gear, mostly because when I teach workshops where I end up with lots of students with the same items as I'm carrying, thus anything set down can be confused very, very quickly. Is that your battery or mine? But with this new travel issue, I've added some labels with both my name and travel telephone number on them that are on pasted on my tablet, laptop, and camera bodies. 
  • Know your serial numbers. It's always a good idea to have a written list of serial numbers of the items you're traveling with and keep that separate from the gear. If your gear gets lost or stolen, you'll need those numbers for a police report, and you'll need a police report in order to claim insurance on the item (most of you probably have homeowners insurance that covers travel with cameras, and many photographers have specific insurance policies covering gear). 

Here are two other articles dealing with the new requirements that you might want to read:

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