with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Know Before You Go: Airport Security and Traveling Photographers

print and slide film canisters and photographsAs I write this, we are planning for another of our frequent excursions out of our comfort zone (home on the road) to a foreign place where we don’t speak the language, have little clue on what we will find when we get there (tour books are only “so” helpful), and have prayers and hope for our survival during the duration of our trip.

Oh, that sounds ominous! No, we are not going to a dangerous place. In a way, the stress associated with traveling today often outweighs our enjoyment of the trip. Many times we’ve had opportunities to jump on a plane recently, and we shied away, unwilling to endure the torture of the travel.

For world travelers, this is an amazing thing to share with you. Admit it, as fantastic as your travel plans may be, you still have to run the gauntlet of the getting there and coming back. Ain’t it a pain! But these are the things people need to know before they go traveling. In today’s world, the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t apply. You are suspected as guilty from the moment you set foot on the grounds of an airport.

Prague Clock Tower Main Square, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenComing in and out of Israel, we are questioned, interrogated, checked, rechecked, scanned, x-rayed, searched, x-rayed again, checked again, questioned again, checked again, x-rayed again, and so on and so on, right up to the moment we sit down on the plane. And even then, people look around and wonder….could he be a terrorist? If there is a problem, can I rely upon him or her to help rescue us? Our luggage, left behind to the discretion of the baggage handlers and inspectors, is often repeatedly x-rayed by machines that can cause cancer in more than rats, opened, searched, sniffed, scanned, and then checked again at the will of security, hopefully arriving on the plane with us.

Changing planes en route? Luggage can be x-rayed and checked again between flights. Arriving in some countries, we are again screened, x-rayed, checked, searched, questioned and interrogated. Then the whole process is repeated on the return flight. As an American, I was raised to believe in a few basic principles, and a right to privacy and freedom from persecution are high on the list. I don’t feel it when I travel, inside and outside of the US. And yet, we suffer the indignities of the padding down searches and removing belts and shoes in front of strangers because we think it helps keep us all safe.

This is not a diatribe about the woes of traveling today. It is a reality check on what happens as we transport ourselves and our stuff to and from a location via airplanes. It is reality that we are profiled, searched, investigated, scanned, and checked before we board an aircraft all due to the fact that less than a micro-fraction of the world’s population has learned that good and attention can come from hijackings and turning airplanes into flying bombs. Let’s look at some reality checks for the traveling photographer and writer.

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Exploring Travel Myths

Traveling as much as we do, we have heard a lot of myths, rumors, and conjecture about travel. Let’s look at some of these and put to rest the myths, rumors, and conjecture.

Myth: Flying is more dangerous now.

River Delta area seen from a plane, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenAs long as humans have been experimenting with tools and machines, accidents happen. Not even a hundred years ago, it was science fiction fantasy to consider people gathering together en mass and climbing into a vehicle that not only made a terrific noise, it thrust itself into the air climbing to altitudes where oxygen is thin and the stars are close. Don’t forget that the reality of gravity is that what goes up must come down. And the first planes came down a lot. Trial and error.

Today, according to an article just after September 11, 2001, by Stephen Moore, Financial Columnist for the National Review: “If you fly just 2,000 miles a year, your odds of dying in a plane crash are roughly equivalent to your odds of being hit on the head by a plane falling on you.” According to research by STATS on how dangerous each trip was (compared to miles traveled – driving was 53 times more dangerous than flying), they figured out that you were “50 times more likely to be in a personal vehicle accident than in a plane accident and 35 times more likely to be injured. However, you were 15 times more likely to be killed on a plane trip.” Well, of course. Seat belts and modern safety regulations protect car passengers from injury, but when a plane goes down, your floating seat cushion won’t help much. So now that we’ve stopped worrying about crashing, we worry about the bad guys out there who want to use our plane for their evil purposes.

Airplane hijacking came long before the Palestinians and Osama Bin Laden. It came February 21, 1931, in Arequipa, Peru. Local revolutionaries surrounded an aircraft demanding to be flown to wherever they wanted. The pilot refused and the revolutionaries gave up their attempt a week later. The first recorded “successful” hijacking was when four Chinese hijackers seized a Cathay Pacific flight from Macau to Hong Kong in 1948, and during the struggle between the crew and hijackers, the plane crashed killing all 25 onboard.

The number of hijacking incidents are actually way down (from an annual average of 41 from 1968-1977). According to research from http://www.stats.org, prior to September 11, 2001, you had a much higher risk of falling off a ladder at home or from riding a bicycle than dying in a terrorist incident – and even less chance of being involved in an airplane-related terrorist act. Reality check: Quit smoking and over-eating and start exercising and you will live a lot longer – don’t be afraid of airplanes.

Myth: I just need a ticket to get on the plane.

You used to only need a ticket to get on a plane. Now you need one or two picture identifications to get your ticket. But don’t put it away yet. You need to show these, along with your tickets and boarding pass, at the many security checkpoints you may pass through on your way to and from the plane. When traveling overseas, you may need a hotel and/or car rental confirmation, an itinerary from a travel agent, visas, permits, health certificates, and more.

If you are not a US or European citizen and you are traveling to or through the US, you must now allow yourself to be fingerprinted and provide proof of citizenship and residence. And the paperwork doesn’t stop there. The days of retina scans and face recognition can’t get here fast enough for the seasoned traveler, as it will speed up the process, but in the interim, make sure you have all your paperwork and you keep it immediately accessible to move through the line faster. Similar to the necklaced ID cards many companies require, we recommend the EasyTravelAir pouch for frequent travelers. Hanging around your neck, it features clear pockets in front for photo ID and passports, and pockets for tickets, boarding passes, and even some quick money.

Myth: Flying is faster and more convenient.

If you are traveling great distances, flying is still faster and more convenient, but many are weighing all the considerations and voting for other methods due to the hassle at the airports.

A friend travels several times a month between Seattle and Portland, usually by plane – until recently. An engineer, he figured out that it takes him an hour to drive to the airport and park. Then another two or more hours to get through ticketing and security. Then another 30 – 60 minutes waiting for the plane to leave for the one hour flight, and about thirty minutes or more upon arrival to get through the airport and to his rental car. This process has taken over six hours or more on occasion in the past. Taking his own car and driving direct takes four hours.

Reality Check: Which do you think he chooses to relieve the stress and anxiety in his life? You have to weigh all of the information and alternatives on how it impacts your life’s health and welfare – then take the train.


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Myth: I have to arrive at the airport two to three hours in advance for security reasons.

While there is some truth to this, one of the main reasons it requires so much time to be “processed” through security is handling all the stuff people bring with them on the plane.

According to an alert from the Homeland Security Office in the US, there are three things you can do to make your pass through the security check points easier, called “IN, OUT, OFF”:

  1. Place all metal items, including cell-phones, keys, belt buckles, etc., inside your carry-on bag while waiting in line.
  2. Take laptops and handheld computers out of their cases.
  3. Take coats off.

We’d like to add a few more tips.

Keep Paperwork in One Place
Keep tickets and identification paperwork (passports, licenses, visas) in a pouch all together, ready to access, like the EasyTravelAir pouch. In US and international airports, you may be asked for these at least four times before sitting down on the airplane. You can be stopped at any time and asked to prove your identity. The easier and faster you can access these papers, the faster your process.
Take Off Your Shoes or Wear Sandals
Since the failed attempt of the shoe-bomber, even our shoes are suspect, so start wearing slip on shoes through the airport. You don’t need hiking boots in an airport. Wear comfortable slip ons and keep your shoes in your luggage. Put them on at baggage claim if you need them then.
Wear Loose, Comfortable Clothing
Wear sweat pants or elastic pants and leave the belts in your luggage. Belt buckles often set off the metal detectors, so either leave them at home or put them in your luggage or carry-on and put them back on when you arrive at your destination.
Keep Small Stuff in Your Carry-on Not Your Pockets
Keep the stuff in your pockets to a minimum. Put small pocket stuff (small change and keys) in a small pouch or bag that easily slips in and out of your pocket. Empty your pockets before you approach the x-ray machines and put things in your carry-on. Or put all of your small pocket stuff in your carry-on and have your pockets empty before you arrive at the airport.
Keep Most Critical Things With You
As a nature photographer and writer, your most critical items are film, camera equipment, and laptop/computer equipment. Other than a book or magazine to read and a bottle of water, what else do you have to have on the plane with you? With the new weight and size restrictions on carry-on luggage, make sure the most important items go with you first, and then add the rest. The less you have, the less they have to paw through at the check points. According to the TSA, you are permitted one personal item and one carry-on: “Carry-on baggage is limited to one carry-on bag plus one personal item. Personal items include laptops, purses, small backpacks, briefcases, or camera cases. Remember, 1+1.”
Pat Yourself Down
As you are standing in line approaching your turn at the security area, pat yourself down to make sure it is all off of you before you step up for your turn.
Do You Have EVERYTHING You Arrived With?
Things get shifted and moved around while being inspected at the security checkpoints. To make sure what is yours stays with you. We count all our pieces: hat, coat, sweater, purse, laptop, carry-on, luggage carrier, book, belt, whatever goes into the scanner gets counted and we count when we are done to make sure that everything is back with us before we leave the security check area.
Label Little Stuff and Electronics
Like putting labels on your clothing when you were young, label all the little things that can get lost while you pass through security or travel. Tape a business card to the bottom or inside your laptop (not on the screen) or have it engraved with your name and contact information on the bottom. Put a luggage tag on your camera strap. Make sure your carry-ons are all marked with luggage tags and identifying markers so you can spot it in the “crowd” of stuff.
Do NOT Wrap Gifts
Many foriegn countries have a custom of wrapping up whatever you buy, whether to walk around the block to your hotel or protect it while traveling back home. If you are carrying gifts back home in your carry-on or in your luggage, don’t wrap them. Security will unwrap them and inspect them if necessary. The is applies to regular luggage as well as carry-ons. Unwrapping the presents can add delay times.
Make Sure All Electronic Devices Have Fresh Batteries and Charges
While it varies between airports and countries, some security checks involve turning on your electronic devices to make sure they work and are not disguised as something dangerous. hiding bombs. To avoid delays during this kind of testing, make sure all electronic devices, cell phones, PDAs, laptops, cameras, MP3 players, radios, all have fresh batteries and are fully charged. If the battery is dead, you could be asked to pull out the charger or power supply to “prove” it works, or be required to put it in your luggage or leave it behind.

Last Myth: It’s too much trouble to travel these days.

City of Dubrovnik, Croatia, photograph by Brent VanFossenActually, in many ways, this is true, but don’t forget that there is a vast and diverse world out there worth exploring. We have some crazy friends who believe that the best time to travel and explore a country is when it is in political upheaval or just after “war”. This is when all the tourists have abandoned the place, and the residents welcome travelers with happy, open arms, ready to spread the news about their wonderful homeland. We aren’t that brave, but we did find that exploring Croatia a few years after the dust of war settled, was a delight. There were few tourists and the area is absolutely lovely. But we like our dust settled. Go. Travel. Suffer the pains of air travel. The world is an amazing place and worth seeing.


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One Comment

  • Rebekah Smit
    Posted June 30, 2006 at 16:24 | Permalink

    Always remeber when traveling with kids to pack a bag fo each child with actvitys and crayons and paper and two toys that the kids enjoy and maybe some time of multiple game that easy like an extra not pad for playing tic tac to or other games, then enjoy, you are garanteed not to have your kids complaining or upset which makes the ride more enjoyable for everyone! just remember if kids are entertained they have nothing to complain about, but for older kids you might consider a cd player so that they may listen to their fav cds on the ride!

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