Your camera equipment is never heavier than when you’re trying to board a plane. Rules may be rules, but they don’t make any sense, says Nick Smith
My story starts in one of those swish rustic safari lodges nestled deep in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. After an unpleasant overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, a four-hour delay prior to a short haul to Maun, followed by a hop, skip and a jump in a Cessna, I was exhausted. Exhausted and minus one camera.
This was a long time ago and I’ve since been told many times what a daft idea it was to put a camera in my hold baggage. ‘Always take your photographic gear on board with you,’ sniggered Martin Hartley over a beer, before going on to tell me that if you put anything of value in your main luggage you’re asking for trouble. They don’t call it ‘Thiefrow Airport’ for nothing, he said, trying to think up a daft pun on Johannesburg to go with his earlier one. ‘I know all that,’ I said, ‘but my gadget bag was overweight and the check-in staff made me take some stuff out and repack it into my hold luggage.’
I told him how I transferred my spare camera body which, as we know never made it, having been smuggled out of an international airport presumably through the same weak link in the system that allows explosives, guns and drugs in. At least I’d had the presence of mind to ditch the spare, but I can tell you I was spitting blood when the insurance company refused to cough up, while the two airlines involved in the connector flight blamed each other. But I’ll have a rant about camera insurance another day.
Over the years I’ve varied my approach to a problem that all photographers on overseas assignments face. Through trial and error I’ve managed to get the weight of my kit down, but I can never get it to under 11kg no matter how hard I try. By the time you’ve packed the laptop, card readers, chargers and all that gubbins, there’s barely room for a compact point-and-shoot.
I bought myself one of those ‘Airport guaranteed’ ultra light packs, but the truth is that most airlines simply won’t allow you to go airside with more than 10kg of the tools of the trade. This annoys me for several reasons, but mercifully they don’t often check, so long as you pick up your pack as if it were as light as a feather. Once you’re on the plane the real nightmare begins because, while everyone plugs themselves into their iPods, novels, and handy horseshoe-shaped cushions, I’m just sitting there waiting for the hot rectangular tray of what they call food to arrive.
I suppose after years of feeling like a criminal something had to give, and on a recent trip to Malaysia I nearly snapped, before being on the receiving end of an unexpected happy outcome. Heathrow check-in again. ‘I’m sorry sir but this bag is 11 kilos. It’s too heavy to take on as hand luggage,’ came the bored and yet still slightly helpful voice of someone not really enjoying what they were doing. I counted to ten and decided to reason with them.
Ah, I said, but what about the people who take through a 10kg item of hand luggage and then buy a litre of water airside? As we all know from our physics classes the definition of a kilogram is that it is the weight of a litre of distilled water at 4 degrees centigrade. So, hah! The minute they buy their water they’ll be carrying the same weight as me. And what’s more, not only will I not buy a bottle of water, I further promise to drink nothing between now and boarding.
The woman looked at me sadly before repeating that my bag was overweight. But my check-in luggage weighs less than my cameras, I remonstrated. If you aggregate the total weight, I’m miles under. ‘It doesn’t work that way, sir,’ said the lady who, despite knowing I was morally right, had started to take a dislike to me. In frustration I pointed out that the portly gentleman she’d just let through was easily ten stone overweight, but did she pick on him? Oh no, that would be weightism. Maybe he’d eaten his cameras before arriving at the airport…
After further heated discussion where logic failed, and after more ‘computer says no’ moments, I was desperate. But somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered what a teacher of mine once told me years ago: that politeness and kindness would open more doors than any amount of swagger and bluster. ‘Please let me through,’ I begged. ‘Oh all right,’ she replied, ‘just this once.’
So next time I go to check in with my 11kg of kit – that I can’t put in the hold because someone will steal it – I’m going to be sweetness and light. If challenged, I’ll ask their advice, help and expert opinion on how to solve the problem. The cynical misanthrope in me doesn’t for a second think such flattery will come naturally, but I suppose we could all do with learning from our mistakes.
This article appears in the latest edition of Outdoor Photography magazine