Why The TSA’s Carry-On Allowance For Photographers Is Irrelevant

One of the first topics I ever wrote about on Flying With Fish was the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) carry-on baggage allowance for photographers. This allowance specifically states that for Photographic Equipment “You may carry on one (1) bag of photographic equipment in addition to one (1) carry-on and one (1) personal item through the screening checkpoint. The additional bag must conform to your air carrier’s carry-on restriction for size and weight.”

For a while many airlines, when presented with the TSA document, allowed photographers to carry on an additional carry on bag. This allowance by airline has changed, as has the wording by the TSA.

The TSA’s website now states, in bold letters, under the original text “Air carriers may or may not allow the additional carry-on item on their aircraft. Please check with your air carrier prior to arriving at the airport.

In fact, many airlines now specifically state they do not comply with the TSA carry-on baggage allowance and there is a very good reason why…this reason is that the TSA has no governance over airline carry on baggage allowance.

Airline carry-on allowance is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA requires each airline create a carry-on baggage policy of their own, which then much be approved by the FAA.

Airline checked baggage policy is overseen by the Department of Transportation (DOT), and checked & carry-on baggage fees are not regulated by either the FAA or DOT.

If you are a photographer and find yourself staring at the TSA’s carry on baggage allowances thinking you have a found the Holy Grail loophole chances are you will be stopped at the gate.  A few years ago printing out a copy of the TSA allowance used to work at the gate with most airlines, but in the past few years, that print out will simply get you no where, except being forced to check one of your bags.

I am not sure why the TSA still maintains a policy of allowing an additional carry-on bag for airline passengers when no airlines allow a passenger to fly with an additional carry-on bag of photographic equipment.

You may find yourself lucky with an airline gate agent taking pity on you, but with packed overhead bins due to increasing checked baggage fees, I would not count on luck to get your additional carry-on bag on board.

Happy Flying!


  1. Steven,

    On a recent trip I noticed a couple boarding my flight (United) with three carry-on bags in tow. I’m certain that none of them would fit under any airline seat and they all appeared slightly larger than most rolling carry on bags (most of which don’t conform to airline standards anyway).

    This just happened to be the most extreme of the many examples of disregard for the under enforced carry-on bag policies I’ve seen. I’d like to read your thoughts on that issue some time.

    Personally, I’m a little annoyed when I work so hard to fit my camera gear in a Pelican 1510LOC and an under-seat compatible backpack.


  2. Firstly, lets get the TSA agents reminded that if a request for film to be scanned by hand, they should do it.

    As much as I love my film damaged by the TSA and other screeners, I’d rather have the request for a manual scan forfilled….

  3. The TSA doesn’t care how many bags you carry on. They will all be screened one way or another. The airlines want to limit the amount of carry on items for two reasons; limited overhead storage space and the revenue generated by checked baggage fees. We see now how certain airlines want to charge for carry on also. They have to make a buck any way they can now.

  4. Kevin,

    The TSA ‘shouldn’t care’ how many bags you carry on, however the TSA created a guideline for carry-on baggage allowance back around 2003 and revised the wording in 2007. Carry-on baggage limits are not part of the TSA’s purview, yet they saw fit to establish guidelines for passenger limits to be allowed through the screening check point.

    The carry-on baggage limits as set forth by the TSA were done independently of the airlines and the FAA … and long before airlines started charging passengers for checked baggage and long long long before any airline ever created a pay-for-carry-on ancillary revenue scheme.

    Happy Flying!


  5. Last month I traveled to Tucson with my camera gear in a backpack on one shoulder, notebook computer bag on the other and my tripod in hand. This was on Southwest airlines without any issues or questions.

  6. Phil,

    You slid by with the tripod, that is not really a carry on. I have boarded flights with a rolling bag, backpack and a 400f2.8 on my shoulder without anyone blinking. They don’t blink because its not a carry on bag. It is technically a carry on, but it really isn’t.

    If you tried to board the plane with a Think Tank Shape Shifter and two Think Tank Airport International rollers … SWA would have stopped you, while the TSA would have allowed it.

    Happy Flying!


  7. I find I can usually talk the Delta gate agents to let me board with three bags…I show them whats inside and they’re okay with it…but I also have a smaller than average roller and everything I take fits in the space of what most people would consider to be two carry on bags. Plus it helps when you are flying in first class, even if it is on a medallion upgrade.

  8. According to TSA 1/14/11, my camera tripod must be checked. She said that while tripods are not listed on the web site as prohibited, they are on a prohibited items list TSA employees have in their office.

    Since I’ve been separated from my luggage in the past [though it eventually caught up with me], really wanted to avoid checking anything. If that’s how it is then so be it, but I may call again to see if I get the same answer.

    My experience with call centers is that you can get a different answer to a question each time to call, so I have a tough time believing they all have the same info.

    Would be interested to know what other people are told if/when they call TSA regarding tripods.

  9. CJS

    Just conferred with a TSA Supervisor Transportation Security Officer … tripods are NOT prohibited from carry on. Tripods may be ‘rejected’ due to size if they exceed carry on limits, or are deemed to be dangerous (snow spikes … which my tripod has and it is always carry on).

    If you have the ability, pull up the TSA’s mobile site that shows what is and is not allowed. Tripod is on there … as is Lightsaber.

    Happy Flying!


  10. Fish,

    My tripod does not have spikes, is very lightweight and folds down to 21″.
    I will take it with me through security and worst case scenario, I will be told to check the bag.

    Thanks for your quick reply!

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