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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Running Scared and Flying Blind

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Back in the 1960s, when airline hijacking meant little more than some nutcase wanting a free ride to Cuba, a comedian drew laughs with his "perfect solution" to thwart air piracy.

Everyone, he said, would fly naked.

Times, obviously, have changed. But, in the awful aftermath of September 11, legitimate new concerns about airline and airport security already are threatening to reach that same level of absurdity.

President Bush outlined his own first steps toward increased airline security this week. His proposals included armoring cockpit doors against invasion and improving background checks on airport personnel. But his proposals made scant mention of a more mundane yet very important concern of the traveling public – what, if anything, passengers now will be allowed to take with them on an airplane.

Although increasing evidence indicates that at least some of the fanatical terrorists who hijacked four U.S. airliners this month had inside help to get their weapons on board – and therefore may have passed through security gates legitimately – airlines nevertheless have begun independently to impose Draconian measures for carry-on luggage that threaten to further alienate a traveling public already disgusted with almost every aspect of air travel, and who already are staying away from flying in droves.

Moreover, from the standpoint of all photographers – professional, commercial, editorial, even amateur – these new rules seem designed to guarantee that more and more of us now will have our equipment stolen and our film ruined.

As of this writing, the most severe – and self-serving – rules for carry-on luggage are being imposed by Pan American Airways, though other carriers are imposing tougher carry-on rules as well. Last Tuesday, Pan Am informed all of its customers as follows:

"For the safety and comfort of yourself and your fellow passengers, Pan Am passengers will be required to check all bags. This includes briefcases and laptop computers. Carry-on items will be limited to wallets, purses and diaper bags for those traveling with infants."

I wish I were making this up, but you can see it for yourself, boldly printed in red, on the Pan Am Web site, under "terms and conditions." These same terms and conditions, it should be noted, also state that Pan Am "will not be responsible for money; jewelry; cameras; video and electronic equipment, including computers and similar valuables contained in checked or unchecked baggage."

Bob Shell, former editor of Shutterbug Magazine, opines that "this really ha[s] nothing to do with safety;" that the no carry-on rule will allow the airline to "board and unboard" planes faster and thus tighten their schedules to get more planes in the air more quickly.

But my take is more cynical. With airlines already facing multi-million-dollar negligence lawsuits because of last month's tragedies, and with low-paid, poorly trained screeners likely to remain at their X-ray machines and metal detectors unless and until the federal government steps in, these extreme measures afford airlines a way to try to inoculate themselves from future lawsuits should terror somehow manage to strike in the air again.

But given all we are learning about the porous nature of airport and tarmac security, this is not dealing with the problem. This is flying naked – while the airline covers its ass.

It must be said clearly and emphatically: No one, least of all working photographers who depend on reliable air travel to do their job, possibly can object to better airport screening of luggage and individuals. We all want that if any of us is to regain that long-ago feeling of safety and security we had when we flew pre-9/11.

But under current conditions – which appear unlikely to change significantly – photographers forced to check through their equipment are likely to be doubly damned.

First, the expected increase in the use of powerful CTX scanning machines, for checked luggage now and very likely for any remaining carry-on items in the future, increases exponentially the chance that undeveloped and unexposed film will be ruined. I repeat: will be ruined. Eastman Kodak's advisory to photographers when these sophisticated bomb- and weapon-sniffing machines were introduced declared:

"This unit performs two kinds of scans. The first is a general sweep, which is harmless to film. The second is a focused, high energy scan targeted at any suspicious-looking items identified by the system in the initial sweep. If this second scan happens to strike unprocessed film, it will be ruined."

Of course, it used to be that photographers could demand hand-inspection of their cameras and film, under 14 CFR 108.17, the FAA regulation that states "...if requested by passengers, their photographic equipment and film packages shall be inspected without exposure to an X-ray system." But for now anyway, most, if not all, bets seem to be off. One photographer, in a broadcast e-mail to his colleagues on the Editorial Photographers Web site this week reported that, when he requested hand-inspection of film at Chicago's O'Hare airport, he was ignored and his film was passed through the scanner. (In fairness, I should report that at least one other shooter said he was able to have his film hand-inspected at LA International.)

But even if one were to buy film on site – as I did earlier this year in Venice – and have it processed there as well (CTX machines don't affect processed film), extreme carry-on rules still will force photographers to leave their valuable equipment to the rarely tender and too-often larcenous mercies of behind-the-scenes baggage handlers.

In the voluminous Editorial Photographer e-mail traffic these past days, one shooter said he was going to pack his gear in a hard-sided Pelican case and check it through as luggage when he flew to Europe.

"I wish you luck, especially if you're flying through Heathrow!" a colleague shot back. "This summer I had a Pelican case full of camera equipment stolen after checking it in as checked baggage in Heathrow. The Pelican case arrived in Paris empty, even after locking it securely and disguising it inside an old duffel bag."

Canadian shooter Allen McInnis added this depressing note:

"While in Italy on assignment last year I watched the police arrest half the people on the ramp. All checked baggage is X-rayed and when they see the really good stuff the bag is marked and the contents removed. The cops in Italy released video of the handlers doing it. [And] here in Montreal, golf sets were being stolen almost as fast as they could be loaded on the belt."

McInnis added, "We must make it clear that accountability on behalf of the airlines is going to become a bigger issue now. If I must check it, the carrier must be responsible for it!"

To see the Pan Am rules, go to https://www.buypanam.com/terms.phtml To contact Pan Am management, go to http://www.flypanam.com/pages/contact.html To contact the FAA via e-mail: 9-AWA-TELLFAA@faa.gov

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Larry Morris - The Washington Post
Tightened security rules will inevitably cause delays – but ill thought-out Draconian procedures could seriously threaten traveling photographers, who now risk losing equipment to thieves, film to CTX scanning.

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