The photography and airline interwebs are abuzz with a scathing blog post by photographer Jess T. Dugan claiming that on the 18th of December 2012, flying between Chicago O’Hare and Boston Logan, on JetBlue flight 922, the airline stole her camera gear. There are lessons to be learned here for photographers from Ms. Dugan’s unfortunate loss of gear, including why it is unlikely the airline stole his gear.
While some of the details from Ms. Dugan are fuzzy from her blog post, let’s start with some of the facts at hand … Ms. Dugan was indeed on board JetBlue 922 on the 18th of December, an Embraer E190 that departed from gate L5 at Chicago O’Hare at 9:00am and went wheels up at 9:17am. Flight 922 put its wheels down at Boston Logan at 12:06pm and arrived at gate C30 at 12:11pm.
Now that the known events of the day are out of the way … let’s address Ms. Dugan’s accusations that JetBlue stole her gear. No one doubts the gear was stolen, however her accusations leave a lot to be desired in terms of who is responsible and the likelihood that in fact the airline was involved.
First off … Ms. Dugan’s blog post states:
“I was forced to check this equipment because I was already carrying on two other sets of camera equipment and could not fit these cameras in my carry on luggage. Due to TSA requirements, I did not put a lock on my bag.”
I won’t question Ms. Dugan having more gear than she could carry on board, although I have some questions about how the gear was split between a small checked camera bag and a suitcase … but that has nothing to do with her accusations. The fact is that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in no way prohibits locks from being placed on checked baggage.
Not only does the TSA not prohibit locks from being placed on checked bags, there are specific locks that are TSA approved called Sentry Locks, which the agency discusses clearly on its own website. Sentry Locks can be found at Target, WalMart, CVS, Macy’s and on the concourse of any airport. TSA Sentry Locks have a specific key slot for the TSA to open a lock and safely replace it, resecuring a bag before sending it along should it need to be searched.
Photographers traveling on U.S. domestic flights can use non-TSA Sentry Locks by using a firearm approved hard case and tossing a starter pistol into the case. I have detailed this HERE.
Ms. Dugan goes on to state
“In Chicago, I handed my bag directly to the JetBlue baggage agent, and in Boston, I watched it come out of the luggage terminal, so there was absolutely no moment this theft could have happened except for when it was in the care of JetBlue.”
Ms. Dugan in fact did not hand her bags to a JetBlue Baggage agent in Chicago and there are a number of places a bag could have been stopped and searched along the way from check-in to plane. The obvious error in Ms. Dugan’s statement is that JetBlue Baggage Handlers do not work the front counters at the airport, although any do not make the distinction between the roles of an airline’s ground staff. A JetBlue counter representative would have accepted Ms. Dugan’s bag, tagged it and sent it along. After the check in counter all bags go to a TSA screening area on conveyor belts. The TSA visually inspects each bag through a scanner, then pulls bags that need secondary screening, then sends the bags along to a sort room … none of these areas is staffed by JetBlue employees at Chicago O’Hare.
For passengers looking out their window of a JetBlue plane at O’Hare watching bags get loaded, planes getting marshaled in, pushed back and wing walkers guiding planes backing away from gates … none of those people work for JetBlue. Those ramp agents are employees of Menzies Aviation under contract to JetBlue and other airlines at the airport.
Statistically theft from bags by airline employees (and the Transportation Security Administration), while appearing in news headlines, is lower than thefts by third-party contract ground handlers and other persons at the airport with access to baggage.
None of these factors truly address why jetBlue is not liable for any claims of the lost camera gear Ms. Dugan checked under the aircraft … the answer to that question can be found in the JetBlue Contract of Carriage. Every airline has a Contract of Carriage and they all adhere to various international legal conventions, including the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air done at Montreal 1999, aka: The Montreal Convention.
In Section 18 of JetBlue’s Contract of Carriage, Baggage – Limitation of Liability, subsection F, is familiar text used by all virtually all commercial passenger airlines (wording may vary)
For international and domestic transportation, Carrier will not accept for carriage medicines, money, checks, securities, jewelry (including watches), wigs, cameras, video, audio and other electronic equipment (including computers, software or music devices), CDs, DVDs, silverware, optical equipment (including contact lenses), dental and orthodontic devices or equipment, keys, negotiable papers, securities, business documents, samples, items intended for sale, paintings, antiques, artifacts, manuscripts, animal antlers, furs, irreplaceable books, wringing instruments, heirlooms, collector’s items or publications and similar valuables contained in checked or unchecked baggage. Excess valuation may not be declared on any such items. Passengers are encouraged to carry such valuable items personally. In the case of domestic transportation, Carrier reserves the right to require the Passenger to sign a limited liability release before accepting any such items for transportation. In the case of domestic transportation if any valuable items of the type described in this paragraph are lost, damaged or delayed, Passenger will not be entitles to any reimbursement or compensation from Carrier, whether or not a limited liability release has been signed by Passenger.
The exception to the above is if the items are shipped on the aircraft as “Air Cargo” which is entirely different than checked baggage and cannot be done at the passenger counter.
Every airline has its Contract of Carriage on its website, generally links in its email, most include that you have rear the CoC and understand the terms and conditions on their eCommerce site before you can purchase your ticket and printed copies are available at the counter.
If you place an item, such as your camera gear, under an aircraft in checked baggage you must have your own insurance. The airline is in no way required to cover your losses.
So … what could have helped prevent Ms. Dugan’s unfortunate experience that all photographers can learn from?
1 – When packing your gear maximize your packing space and get as much gear as you can in your carry-on and personal item. A full sized backpack and roll aboard, while technically larger than allowed by most airline ‘personal item’ size requirements, rarely gets a second glance. Some bags are big and look small. If you have two extra camera and two extra lenses, throw them on your shoulders. Unless you are flying Spirit Airlines in the U.S., Ryanair in Europe or a few small low cost carriers in the Middle East, an airline won’t blink at the cameras with lenses (unless your lenses are a 400f2.8 or 600f4)
2 – If you have to check your gear, use a nondescript hard case and lock it. The TSA has no regulations prohibiting the locking of checked bags (nor do most countries around the world).
3 – If you have a bag that looks like a camera bag, or your Pelican Case screams “photographer” toss it into an old duffel bag that won’t get a second look. You don’t want to look like a photographer, no matter how much you like looking like a photographer, when you check your bag.
4 – If you are checking a camera bag that is locked make sure it has very heavy-duty zippers or even better no zippers at all. Most zippered bags, even if locked, can be opened with a Bic Crystal Pen in a matter of seconds, and then the popped open zipper can be closed up in a matter of seconds, resecuring the bag as if no one had entered the bag
5 – Insure all your gear for damage and theft and make sure it covers being checked under the plane. It’s also a good idea to get rental fees covered by your insurance if available
6 – READ YOUR AIRLINE’S CONTRACT OF CARRIAGE! I assure you it will state very clearly that your gear is not covered, regardless of circumstances if it is checked baggage.
While it was nice of JetBlue to ultimately offer Ms. Dugan a $1,000 travel voucher because he complained loudly and got a lot of social media traction … personally I think it was a bad move by the airline. This sets a precedent no airline should follow … it is more than likely the airline did not steal Ms. Dugan’s camera equipment and the airline just undid its own Contract of Carriage terms and conditions for limiting its liability for checked baggage.