On Monday night, news leaked that the U.S. is banning carry-on electronics from international flights originating in several Middle Easterns cities 1. The ban forbids any electronics larger than a cell phone from being carried on board by passengers traveling from the following cities to the United States:
- Abu Dhabi
Details about this ban, including the exact reasons for it (speculation ranges from elevated terrorist threats to political and business motives) and the exact scope (some news outlets report there are anywhere from 8-13 cities affected), remain scant. However, once it is implemented—as soon as this week—it will have a huge effect on travelers… particularly photographers.
This ban would require all laptops, tablets, kindles and camera equipment to be checked. One family I know, currently based in the Middle East, is already cringing at the thought of flying 12-16 hours with their children while not having devices or eBooks to keep their kids distracted. Business travelers from around the globe who fly through many of these hubs are outraged by the thought of not being able to work during a long flight, or more importantly, being forced to check their computers into the luggage hold. And this last point is why photographers should be concerned.
I’ve written before about the hazards of checking valuable camera gear. Namely, the problems that occur when gear is either stolen or damaged. Airlines will not reimburse passengers for stolen or damaged gear valued at more than a few hundred dollars. And now photographers are expected to hand over a bag filled with tens of thousands of dollars of equipment.
Imagine flying to Africa and checking all of your cameras and lenses you’ve brought for your first photo safari in the Serengeti. You arrive in Tanzania and discover that all of your equipment has been stolen from your baggage, and you’re forced to snap photos on a small point-and-shoot camera, or your phone, for the next two weeks. This actually happened to one of my clients on a trip she took several years ago. Thieves who work in the bowels of these hubs and our destination airports in the U.S. are probably salivating at the thought of the influx of equipment that’s going to shuffle past their prying fingers now.
On a trip many years ago, I ran out of room in my carry-on and was forced to check a camera body. It was (surprisingly, in retrospect) not stolen, but was damaged. The airline refused to cover the damage, because their checked luggage policy warned passengers not to check camera equipment 2. Regardless, from that point on I’ve done everything in my power to avoid checking any bodies or lenses.
This new ruling also creates a conflict with existing checked baggage rules, and nobody knows how these conflicts will be addressed. Airlines that tell passengers they shouldn’t check valuable electronics are suddenly going to force us to do so. Will they reimburse us for theft and damage now? What about the lithium battery ban, which prevents lithium batteries from being checked due to potential fire hazard? A lot of modern camera batteries have lithium components. Will the batteries be confiscated at security? More likely, photographers will have to remember to carry their batteries on while checking everything else. Either way, the likelihood of arriving at your destination with camera gear and no batteries—or batteries and no cameras—is suddenly all the more likely.
You may have read the list of cities above and thought this doesn’t affect you, and wondered why should it affect many photographers at all. After all, the Middle East is not considered a premium wildlife/nature photography destination. However, it is a major hub for several carriers that serve travelers going to popular, wildlife-rich locales such as Africa and India. I have flown through Doha and Dubai a few times for my Africa and India trips. Africa flights going through Dubai are often the cheapest option from Seattle.
Incidentally, I and many other experienced travelers are dubious about the concerns about security practices in these airports, which are being cited as a possible cause for this ban. If anything, I’ve found security in the Middle East airports I’ve visited to be more strict and hands-on than that in our domestic airports. I was once stopped at security in Dubai for ten minutes while agents examined my lens hood. Yes, they spent extra time making sure a cylindrical piece of hard plastic was not a weapon of mass destruction.
Hopefully, the details about this ban will become clearer to the public soon. For anyone with flights scheduled to go to or through the Middle East, I highly recommend staying abreast of the latest developments and calling your airline for updates and information. At the moment the duration of the ban is unknown, and we’re in the dark about how everything will be handled.
More importantly, we can all hope this ban doesn’t expand to more cities and destinations any time soon. Otherwise, travel for photography enthusiasts and professionals is about to become much more difficult and costly, and a lot of vacations and business trips are about to be ruined.
And one final note: this is just another excuse to make sure your gear is insured. Remember that travel insurance usually will not cover big material expenses like pricey camera gear, so having a personal articles policy or “inland marine” style policy that covers lost, stolen or damaged equipment is imperative. Nonetheless, even insurance can’t save a trip that starts with having your gear damaged or stolen… a possibility that’s now become much more realistic.
- Update, 3/22: The U.K. has since implemented the same ban. Update, 7/20: the US appears to have lifted its ban finally. The UK’s may still be in place. ↩
- Ironically, I didn’t actually book a flight on the airline in question, but instead was redirected to them after pilots on my original airline went on strike in the middle of my flight. ↩