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Insecurity Alert

While other air travellers spent the last week calculating their chances of ever being able to fly safely across the Atlantic again without being blown out of the sky by a can of Dr Pepper [What’s the worst that can happen?], photographers were focussed on an issue far more important than mere life, death and international terrorism. How the hell do I get my gear through airport security?

Photographers have wrestled with this one for years of course, often adopting the fat bastard in row 16 technique. But the immediate banning of all cabin baggage, including pocket contents and that rather fetching 300mm 2.8 stuffed down the front of one’s pants, put an immediate end to that strategy.

Having brought in a bad policy in a panic, the government then calmed down, thought hard, and replaced it with a worse one. The original policy of banning all hand baggage at least had the benefit of being so extreme as to be untenable. If there’s one thing the modern business traveller can’t be without, it’s the ubiquitous laptop computer, and there was no way any suit could entrust that –and all the company information in it – to the cargo hold. Either the rules would have to change or the business travel market would desert the airlines in a hurry.

So it’s not very surprising that the latest emergency baggage allowance is just large enough to allow a typical laptop computer to be carried on board; the illusion of enhanced security is maintained while removing the risk of objections from the most influential passenger group. After all, travelling executives can reasonably claim both that they need a laptop to work en route and need to be certain that it actually arrives securely. Package tour plebs and others have no such arguments, so as far as the airlines are concerned they can get stuffed.

Given the above it’s highly likely that the new regime will become permanent; but this new regime leaves photographers, and others with similar concerns, stranded. There’s simply no way to pack even a small set of professional equipment into the maximum size case now allowed as hand baggage: the only solution on offer is stay home or take the risk of checking the gear. For die-hards still using film the situation is even worse. X-ray machines used for hold baggage destroy film, so the only solution is to buy stock on arrival at one’s destination, and of course process the film on location before returning home. This is barely practical even within the UK, and in most parts of the world simply impossible.

Some have suggested that the long-term solution will be to check equipment in heavy duty shipping cases to prevent damage; but that misses the point. The photographers’ main concern over checked equipment isn’t damage: it’s theft. Most photographers would gladly check every last ounce of equipment if airline staff could be trusted not to steal it, but they can’t. It’s not for nothing that Heathrow is popularly known as Thiefrow, and other UK airports have similar reputations.

So how bad is the risk? Here’s an airport worker from Bishop’s Stortford writing on the BBC web-site: “I’ve worked at airports all over the UK and Europe as an Aircraft Engineer, so have seen first-hand the deliberate abuse, damage and theft from passengers luggage which is especially prevalent in the UK.” It gets worse. A policeman is currently awaiting sentencing after being convicted of attempting to sell £9,000 worth of electrical equipment supplied by a Heathrow supervisor. The officer concerned, one PC Powell, was trying to shift the goods on E-Bay where [cue Really Dumb Criminal joke] he used his badge number PC570TW as his sign-in name.

Never mind, these are probably only isolated incidents: it’s only a few bags that go missing, right? Wrong. British Airways have admitted that at Heathrow alone some 20,000 bags went missing in the first five days after new security measures went into force – that’s almost three bags a minute gone AWOL. How can anyone manage to lose 20,000 bags in less than a week? And – what a surprise – complaints of actual theft from baggage also increased under the new regime: by 200% at Gatwick according to Sussex police.

All of which presumably explains how a 12 year old boy without any documents, never mind a ticket, managed to amble onto a Gatwick flight bound for Lisbon in the middle of the biggest security crisis the UK has seen in years. Or indeed how the same airport allowed an Asian man, sweating profusely and carrying a briefcase, to smash a security door, board a plane and almost get to the cockpit before he was challenged by Gatwick’s last line of defence, a cleaner. Obviously the rest of the airport staff were too busy rifling through the baggage backlog to notice. Isn’t it awful when work just builds up like that?

Oh, and just one other thing: you can bet you’ll end up paying excess, and some newly created “security surcharge”, on all that checked equipment. That’s right, you’re going to have to PAY to have your equipment stolen: are these guys good or what?

Christmas comes early for baggage handlers

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