Photography Gear Stolen During Air Travel

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As if air travel in the midst of the busy holiday season wasn’t frustrating enough, one photographer experienced an exceptionally taxing experience when travelling with a bulk of his photography gear from Chicago to Boston on a JetBlue flight. When Jess Dugan, a seasoned fine art photographer, exceeded the limit of carry-on bags allowed by JetBlue, he was forced to check his additional gear with the airline before his flight left from Chicago. Inside the bag, Dugan says he had packed a pair of professional level DSLR’s, both with lenses, in addition to a pro flash head, and other accessories such as memory cards.

"Stuttgart Airport" captured by Jack Harwick. (Click image to see more from Jack Harwick.)

“Stuttgart Airport” captured by Jack Harwick. (Click image to see more from Jack Harwick.)

After landing in Boston and retrieving his bag from the baggage claim carousel, Dugan noticed his luggage felt much lighter than it did when he last had it Chicago. He then opened the bag to realize that all of his equipment except for a camera bag had been stolen from the suitcase. Dugan immediately contacted JetBlue to file a lost baggage claim. Peeved, and probably a little heartbroken from the loss, he also wrote to multiple JetBlue executives in an effort to resolve the issue. As you can read in the official response letter from JetBlue below, the case looks unfavorable for Dugan.

Dear Jess,

Thank you for your message to JetBlue Airways. We sincerely regret to hear that your camera equipment was missing from your checked baggage. We can understand that this must have been an extremely frustrating and inconvenient experience. We can only assure you that your experience is not typical of the standards that we strive to maintain. We have shared your correspondence with our Baggage Leadership Team for review and training purposes.

At JetBlue we make every attempt to minimize situations such as that which you have described. Our crewmembers have extensive background checks and work in a closely monitored environment where they are not allowed to open your bag in most situations (barring safety issues, or in attempt to determine the owner of a bag that is missing its identification). The same may be said of the monitoring and employment verification of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Unfortunately, it is not always possible to determine the cause of this type of incident unless it is witnessed or the missing item is located.

We certainly do not allow or promote any type of disrespect toward our customers’ belongings. Proof that a crewmember had not treated a customer’s belongings with such respect as JetBlue’s values dictate would result in swift and appropriate action toward that crewmember from JetBlue. If you have evidence of theft you may wish to also report this to the police, who are the proper authority to investigate allegations of criminal activity.

Our records do indicate that Baggage Report BOSB600262964 was opened for this incident. However, as the items that were reported as missing fall under limited liability per the JetBlue Contract of Carriage, please be aware that this is a courtesy report that will not result in monetary compensation. You may reference our Contract of Carriage on our website, jetblue.com, under the Legal link.

If we are able to locate your belongings you will be contacted to verify ownership.

Please be aware that TSA regulations do not prohibit you from placing a lock on your baggage. For more information about TSA policies regarding baggage locks, please visit the following link:

http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/baggage-locks

You may also wish to contact and file a claim with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The TSA, Transportation Security Administration, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security which oversees the security of air, ground and maritime transportation networks.

The TSA makes every attempt to ensure that your belongings are returned to your bag at the conclusion of the baggage screening, but they will assess any loss or damage claims that they receive. For the TSA contact information as well as the claim forms, please visit the TSA website at tsa.gov.

We value you as a JetBlue customer and regret that you were disappointed with your recent experience. We hope that you choose to travel with us again and offer us the opportunity to regain your confidence. You can be sure that every effort will be made to ensure that our standard of service meets your expectations in the future.

Sincerely,

Steve
Specialist, Central Baggage
JetBlue Airways
Crewmember 30952

Essentially, the letter states that JetBlue is not contractually obligated to reimburse Dugan for his losses because of a clause which dismisses camera equipment as insurable through the airline. JetBlue argues that by purchasing his ticket, Dugan was agreeing to these terms.

"Red Eye" captured by Gagan Dhiman. (Click image to see more from Gagan Dhiman.)

“Red Eye” captured by Gagan Dhiman. (Click image to see more from Gagan Dhiman.)

Dugan has recentely updated his blog to include a note stating that JetBlue has finally offered him a $1,000 travel voucher after social media got a hold of the story and starting spreading the word. Though the voucher doesn’t come close to covering the costs of replacing his stolen gear, Dugan acknowledges the gesture as a proverbial olive branch.

The lessons to be learned from Dugan’s misfortunes are many. First of all, always read the fine print. Corporations make it difficult to read through their 10 page Terms of Service agreements, knowing most consumers will just ignore it all together. If you are travelling with expensive equipment, don’t rely on the honesty of others to treat it as carefully as you will. Spend the money and purchase travel cases that are designed to protect your gear from theft and damage. If the maximum amount of insurance offered by your airline doesn’t fully cover your equipment–or at all, such as with JetBlue, consider shipping it to your destination.

It’s easy to view Dugan’s loss as an isolated case, but the reality is that such incidents happen on a regular basis. Be aware. It’s up to you as a photographer to protect your equipment.

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15 Comments

  1. Kate B says:

    I have read of a photographer who places an unloaded handgun in each camera case. He reports this to the TSA, which then puts in play the regs for transporting weaponry. The case is sealed and cannot be opened until it reaches its destination. It is more hassle and involves the TSA, but the equipment is secure.

  2. Grant K says:

    I assume he has either a home owners or renter’s insurance, or at least personal property insurance for his equipment to protect his loss if such a thing were to happen. Though this is a terrible crime, filing a police report and an insurance claim should get him his equipment back minus his deductible.

  3. Kendall says:

    Things like this are why photographic equipment insurance exists. To insure $20k worth of gear is not very much money, especially if you only do so for a few months to cover you while you are traveling.

    It’s also a good reason to always travel with a limited set of gear such that you know you’ll be able to carry it on.

  4. Tony Di Giacomo says:

    Quick reminder: If you have to put your equipment below (obviously a last option) make sure you are using hard backed cases like a Pelican or Anvil. A lock on the zipper of a canvas or cloth bag is not a “locked” bag. Its like locking your screen door. Useless. Unfortunately, people are people no matter where they work. I know this because I spent years working on the ramp. Its probably worse now because they barely pay above minimum wage, especially at stations where the local FBO is contracted to load the planes. You’re probably better shipping the equipment on UPS or FedEx and have it meet you there.

  5. Ron says:

    I feel for Dugan’s loss. I run into this problem all the time – weight allowed vs. equipment I want to take. All mine is insured and it only costs me $1.40 per $1000 of value. It IS the photographer’s responsibility to know the weight limits he can take with him onboard, although I know of some situations where airlnes often don’t even bother to weigh carry-on luggage and folks exploit this like crazy. It is interesting to note that the TSA regulations permit professional photogrpahers one bag of photo equipment in addition to the usual carry-on. Unfortunately, most airlines do not see fit to allow this, which is their privilege.

  6. Andrea B says:

    How about taking a pic of your bag at the airport, opened and closed, with a security guard or other airport personnel in the scene. Use Cell phone and camera in case one or the other is stolen.

  7. Susan says:

    Take a look at PPA insurance, covers you world wide. Professional Photographers of America is THE professional organization to belong to if you are a pro. http://www.ppa.com/

  8. Eva says:

    Before packing a check-in bag, I take a photograph of the bag, the intended contents, and my ticket/boarding pass in the same frame, then closeups. Then I e-mail them to myself. That way, if a bag is lost or the contents stolen and I need to make an insurance claim, all the information is to hand. In the kind of last-minute situation Dugan experienced, one could take a quick snapshot with a phone. Also, both luggage scales and insurance are cheap.

  9. Ren says:

    Personally I find it surprising that a seasoned professional would check his equipment in. No photographers I know would do that for any reason. There are a multitude of ways of taking a huge kit onto the plane without checking it in to the hold. In any case, airlines have made it known for years that your belongings are your problem and that they are not liable for loss or damage, even though it’s their own staff who pinch and wreck things. The carry-on weight limit for most airlines is 7kg per bag and generally a limit of two bags. You can sometimes get away with three bags if you have to carry medical equipment such as a CPAP. In any case, Jess hopefully would have been insured properly and will have replacements for all his gear.

  10. Steve says:

    Did Jet Blue say that anyone even looked at the video of baggage handlers to see stole what and when? The airport baggage handlers (not employed by Jet Blue?) are reported to search bags and steal valuables. Personally, I Fedx or DHL overnight to my destination to have it there ahead of time. Those packages don’t get stolen in transit. Be sure to require a signature on delivery!

  11. babola says:

    BlueStar, Jetstar etc all the other low budget airlines that are an off-shoot of their large more respectable parent companies, will be extremely hard to chase for ANY and I mena ANY type of compensation if it comes to that.

    I know life of the pro photogs has become increasingly hard when it comes to monetary issues like cost of travel etc, but I always choose to fly with a well known established brands and make sure my travel insurance covers me for the any potential equipment damage, loss or similar.

    And as Ren mentioned in his comment above, flying your gear as part of check-in luggage never ever even crossed my mind. Yes, you have to fly a little lighter, but all my cameras and lenses are part of a carry-on luggage, no exceptions.

  12. Alan says:

    I feel gutted for you Jess. Whilst I realise many of the responses so far have outlined what alternative steps you might have taken to protect your gear, I am somewhat taken aback at the acceptance of the situation. This appears to be theft, a crime committed by people trusted with your property. I feel the focus by the airline should be what procedures can be changed to eliminate this situation rather than hiding behind a veil of legalese. Instead of having to work around the theft of your gear, what needs to be done so that the theft doesn’t occur in the first place?

  13. Caroline says:

    Even if you pack all your gear in carry-on bags, there is no guarantee you’ll be able to carry your carry-on bag on board. Last time I flew, I had my professional grade camera and 3 lenses in a Lowepro backpack, which I thought would be no problem taking on board since it is much smaller than what many people take on board. However, because I had an aisle seat near the front of the plane, I was in the last boarding group and all the overhead bins were full by the time I put my foot on the plane. I was told I would have to check the bag; it was too big to go under the seat. By being uncharacteristically rude and obnoxious, I managed to rearrange some of the carry-on bags so my backpack would fit in – I don’t know what I would have done had I not managed to do that. Next time – maybe a window seat at the back where you have to board in one of the first groups?

  14. Dazay says:

    Would love to hear Ren elaborate about the ”multitude of ways of taking a huge kit” as carry on luggage. Actually, I’d be happy to learn of just one way of accomplishing this.

  15. Alex says:

    Regarding the incident Jess experienced, It would be an excellent idea to have your reported to another source. I often need to travel, and like bringing my gear along. I have all my gear registered. My camera gear is my “Carry On” on any flight. Trust no one. If the case is I can not bring it on board, Then I would need to find a way to mail it to myself “Registered and Insured”, to my home address, and have a relative receive it at the other end.
    If Jess has receipts and is still looking in bringing matters into a more serious issue against the carrier, I personally would look into submitting certified or notarized copies of these documents to a lawyer, together with the letter he received from the carrier. Then let the lawyer decide if this is a presentable case for a judge to decide the final disposition of his claim.

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