The moment of truth had arrived. On our way home from my nieces wedding in Toronto we were eight hours away from five cats and a good night's sleep. I had a camera bag full of gear after shooting the happy event with my brother, Toronto Sun photographer Craig Robertson (6,000+ frames between us on the day) and given the recent security changes I didn't know what to expect. One thing was clear, there was no way I was checking that bag.
Here's what happened and what you're likely to encounter flying into the U.S. from Canada with camera gear.
Step One, The Ticket Agent. With printed boarding passes we lined up to show ID and drop off the 2 bags we were prepared to check. While we shuffled up and down between the ropes I completed the U.S. custom's form. The agent tagged the two bags and asked about the camera bag. Question: Was it all photographic gear, and did I have a laptop? Answer: Yes, camera equipment only and no laptop this time. I stressed the fact I was a "working" photographer. She consulted a piece of paper and said it was OK to proceed to customs.
Step Two, The Customs Officer. Round the corner we showed our boarding passes and passports to a TSA security officer and entered another maze to wait to speak to a U.S. Customs officer. This went smoothly and there were no questions about the camera bag. We handed our customs form to an officer and were admitted to the bag drop hall before security.
Step Three, a Pair of TSA Officers, asked about the camera bag (since it didn't have a baggage tag) as we headed towards the bag drop. I told them it was camera gear. One seemed confused but thankfully the other one confirmed it was OK. Juli and I dropped off our two bags and proceeded to security.
Step Four, X-Ray Security. I checked out the other people in line, and the only bags they were carrying were laptop bags, with not a roller in sight. A security officer asked me about the bag before sliding it into the x-ray machine. I passed through the metal detector put my shoes and jacket back on and prepared to get the bag back.
Step Five, Hand Check. A very polite and smiling TSA official who happened to be wearing a
burkahijab, took my bag to a table. She swabbed the bag thoroughly for a chem check and then asked me to carefully remove each piece, explaining what it was, taking off lens caps etc. I did this for my three lenses, two camera bodies, flash unit, extra batteries, flash frames, Zacuto Z-finder and then she examined the bag. She thanked me for my cooperation and told me I could replace the items and proceed to my gate.
Step Six, RCMP Hand Check Two. All passengers had to pass through a second security screening just before the gate. We were lucky, the mens and womens lines were relatively short when we got there... apparently the wait was more than an hour earlier in the day. After putting my camera bag on a table for an armed RCMP officer, a TSA security officer gave me a thorough pat down, then I repeated the entire piece-by-piece explanation of the contents, including turning on each of the cameras and flash to show they worked. The RCMP officer was professional, polite and ultimately friendly. I couldn't imagine doing this myself day after day.
It's not clear how long this kind of screening will continue or when body scanners might automate this procedure; personally I don't mind the extra scrutiny and actually feel better about getting on a plane knowing all passengers have been thoroughly checked. My camera bag this time was a Lowepro Stealth Reporter 650 AW. If this was a cycling assignment I'd need something larger and prefer to have my ThinkTank photo Airport Security v2.0 roller. The Lowepro definitely wouldn't accommodate my 200 f2 but I'm doubtful that a roller would be allowed.
If anyone has successfully negotiated a ThinkTank roller onto an inbound U.S. flight since the carry-on restrictions went into effect I'd like to hear from you. Until airlines can provide a secure way to gate check camera bags containing thousands worth of gear, photographers have no choice but to get them on the plane. I'm glad to see that security officials recognize our tools represent a special case.