Think Tank Airport AirStream Rolling Camera Bag, photo courtesy of Think Tank Photo, Inc.

Recently, a photographer wrote he needed help after traveling on Delta Airlines from Jackson, Wyoming, to Ft. Lauderdale, via both Salt Lake City and JFK Airport in New York. When his luggage arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, more than $10,000 of his photographic gear was damaged or missing.

His loss may have been avoided if he had followed six carry-on baggage rules.

His flight to Salt Lake City arrived late. He got to the gate for his Boeing 737–800 flight to JFK Airport at the last minute. Reaching the door, he was told, “due to lack of space” he’d have to check his camera bag, even after he told the flight attendants his bag contained almost $23,000 worth of camera gear. He wasn’t given the chance to try to put it under the seat in front of him.

The flight attendant assured him the bag would be handled carefully when she returned with the claim check for the bag, which was checked all the way through to Ft. Lauderdale.

At Ft. Lauderdale, his wait at “baggage claim” was excruciating. His photo equipment bag hadn’t made it.

After submitting his baggage claim, he was promised the bag would be on the next flight from JFK Airport. Five flights later, the bag finally arrived. He wrote, “Immediately upon retrieving the bag, I knew something was not right. It was lighter than I recalled after carrying it so many miles over the past month.”

As he unlocked and opened the bag in front of the baggage claim clerk at the airport, he found the bag was in a “chaotic state.”

A Nikon D4 DSLR, SB-900 flash, and 14–24mm lens, plus memory cards and other items, were gone. A portable LaCie hard drive, a Nikon 200mm lens, and 1.4x teleconverter, plus other items, were damaged. It was $10K in missing and damaged gear.

All travelers flying with valuables and breakables need to understand that the airlines clearly state in their “Contracts of Carriage,” which control the relationship of the airlines with their passengers, that they don’t accept any liability for valuables and breakables in their luggage, some specifically noting they have no liability for camera equipment.

Air travelers need to also understand the airlines’ maximum liability limits for lost, damaged, or stolen luggage and contents is very low.

In the US, for example, for domestic flights, the airlines’ maximum liability is $3,300, and for international flights it’s about $1,800. In addition, the value of passengers’ belongings is depreciated value, not original cost or replacement value. Passengers can purchase extra insurance from the airlines, but the limit is typically $5,000.

Additionally, travelers should be forewarned airlines don’t guarantee them overhead bin space in their planes. In fact, the airlines don’t guarantee the stowage space under the seat in front of each passenger. Some seats have no seat directly in front of them, and some seats have obstructions under them, preventing their use to stow a carry-on bag of any reasonable size. On regional jets, window seats, in particular, often have substantially restricted space underneath them.

Here are my basic rules of thumb for flying with valuables and breakables when you travel, including laptop computers, electronic tablets, games, e-readers, cameras, prescription medicine, etc.

1. If you don’t need them, leave your valuables and breakables at home.

2. Pack all valuables and breakables, electronics, photo gear, prescription medications, etc., in your carry-on or personal bag, not your checked luggage.

3. Before flying, determine the type of plane for each flight you’ll take, as some planes have significant size limitations for carry-on luggage under seats and in the overhead bin. Base your carry-on plans on the airplane with the most severe size limits.

4. To be safe, make sure your most valuable gear can be stowed under the seat in front of you if the overhead bins are filled by the time you board the plane.

5. When choosing a seat on a regional jet, you’re likely to have more room under the seat in front of you if you’re in a non-window seat.

6. If, when you try to board, the flight crew says there is no room on the plane for your valuables and breakables, insist on putting it under the seat in front of you, since you have chosen a bag of equipment which will fit. If the seat in front of you is already stuffed with gear, have the flight crew remove it. That’s your space.

I suggested to the photographer flying to Ft. Lauderdale on Delta that he contact Delta’s CEO and stress the flight crew wouldn’t allow him to try to stow his camera gear under the seat in front of him, even when he explained how valuable the gear was. I also suggested he stress the flight crew never told him he could buy insurance on the bag since it would be checked.

Delta seriously considered their crew’s conduct and responded,

“The tariff rules and the ticket contract covering your travel exclude responsibility for jewelry, cash, camera equipment, electronic equipment, or computer equipment contained in checked or unchecked baggage. However, based on the circumstances, we feel an exception is warranted in this case for process of your claim. Accordingly, our check representing full reimbursement for your property as stated in your claim will be mailed under separate cover.”

Delta saw this case was unusual and came through. He has received the check.

He was very lucky. I strongly suggest no one takes a chance that any airline will ever do the same for them.