Air Travel With Big Lenses: Dealing With Puddle Jumpers « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Air Travel With Big Lenses: Dealing With Puddle Jumpers

Air Travel With Big Lenses: Dealing With Puddle Jumpers

Traveling with barely legal roll-aboards with twenty to thirty thousand dollars of camera gear can be difficult, and for some, a quite scary deal, especially when one or more legs of your flight is on a puddle jumper, a small jet with tiny overheads nowhere large enough to take your rolling bag.

Most folks (but not me) are aghast at the thought of gate-checking the roll aboard or backpack that holds their lenses including their largest super-telephoto, several other lenses, two or more camera bodies, tele-converters, extension tubes, and a set of filters.

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Carhartt Men’s Knit Cuffed Beanie

Most folks know that I have been protecting my gear with Carhartt Watch Caps for decades. They are far less costly than the LensCoat stuff, offer far more protection in terms of absorbing shock during travel by air or by car, and better protection against moisture as well. I double the hats for my camera bodies. You can buy thinner, cheaper watch caps, but they simply do not do the job. Best of all, the beanies come in 17 colors; well-organized folks can color-code their gear by using one color for TCs, a different one for camera bodies, etc., etc., etc.

When rain threatens, I make sure to have an extra cap in my fanny pack. If it starts to drizzle or rain, I simply place the beanie over my camera body. They are thick and in addition, they repel the raindrops. I have never had a problem with a lens in the rain. Camera bodies, you ask? Well yes. But never when protected by a Carhartt beanie 🙂

What to do?

The first step is to start with a great bag. I own and use both the ThinkTank Airport Security TM V2.0 and the slightly smaller Airport International TM V2.0 rolling bag. Both are fabulous roll-aboard carry-ons: they are roomy and sturdy and will protect your gear if you are forced to check your camera gear on small aircraft. You can learn more here by following the links.

The next step is to pack your gear properly. At present I use a combination of my wool watch caps and a sewed up hockey sock or two that will protect your gear far better than the LensCoat stuff. Check out the wool hat solution here.

You land at a major airport only to learn that to get to Podunk your next leg will be on a puddle jumper. The first thing that I do is to ask, How full is this flight? If there are more than a few empty seats, your chances of getting your gear on board are increased. If, at any time the gate agent states that you need to put a plane side or gate check tag on your rolling bag, accept it graciously and affix it to your bag. The last thing that you want to do is alienate someone who might be in a position to help.

Most times there will be baggage ground crew folks to grab your tagged bag. The airlines plan is that they grab your bag, stow it in the luggage hold, and when the plane lands, you reclaim your rolling bag. That is usually exactly what happens when you gate check your bag. But when flying puddle jumpers in Alaska, such as when going to Kodiak for a Bear Boat IPT, beware of ERA; they will consistently tell you that you can grab your gate-checked item plane-side when you land but the fact is that they throw the gate-checked bags onto a cart with all the checked bags and deliver them on the conveyor. Obviously this is not the best thing that could happen. BTW, if you put several of those bright red FRAGILE stickers on your roll-aboard that seems to ensure that the bag will be thrown higher and farther than it usually would be….

When the bag man says, “I’ll take that,” your reply is, “Thanks. I spoke to the gate agent (I usually do that) and she said that it would be OK (they usually but not always say “OK”) to try and get it on the plane either under an empty seat or in the crew locker.

I have never had a problem getting past the bag man.

The next step is crucial. When the flight attendant greets you as you get on board, you say, with your biggest smile, “Good morning. I need your help. I am traveling with (fill in the correct amount) thousands of dollars of fragile camera gear. May I try to get it under the seat in front of me or, better yet, under the seat in front of an empty row?” (The latter of course if the flight is not full.) If that does not pan out, you can ask, “Is there any chance of stowing my bag in the crew locker?”

Most of what happens next has 100% to do with the flight attendant. Guys tend to have better luck with female flight attendants, women with male flight attendants. Either way I believe that it there some sort of macho thing going on….

Here are the two extremes. I once had a female flight attendant take her bag from the crew locker and gate check it so that I could get my bag in the storage closet. How nice is that I got her e-mail address and sent her a print.

On another puddle jumper flight, to somewhere in Ohio, I think, the flight attendant was a male and the flight was empty; there were about a dozen empty seats on a 29-seater. At first he was amenable to my suggestions. I was thrilled that there were two empty seats on the left side of the plane all the way in the back. It took some maneuvering to get my bag under the seats in front of that row, and I turned it sideways. I walked forward and took my assigned seat thinking that all was well.

Two minutes later, the guy approached me and said, “Come with me.” We walked to the back of the row and he pointed at my bag and said, “Your bag is obstructing the aisle. You need to gate-check it.” I said, “It’s sticking out perhaps 1/2 inch from under the seat and this is not an emergency row aisle. Nobody will be walking back here. He said, “Your bag is obstructing the aisle. You need to gate-check it.”

This time I replied. “Thanks a lot. It is obvious that you are a bitter unhappy person wearing a uniform. I’ll be glad to gate-check my bag. I did, secure in the knowledge that Karma was on my side and that all of the gear would be OK when I picked it up plane-side at the destination airport. And that is exactly what happened.

Sometimes you just gotta love it.

When it becomes obvious that you are not gonna get your gear bag on the small plane, some folks use a different strategy. They remove their big lens, grab a camera body or two, stuff a sweatshirt into the bag for extra padding, gate check the rolling bag or back pack, simply carry the gear on board. Wearing a great vest like my custom-made X-trahand Vest, makes things a lot easier in these situations. And a great vest can help similarly overseas where you are often busted for the weight of your carry-on rather than the size. Strangely enough they never mind that you are hand carrying six additional items on board as long as the weigh of the bag does not exceed their maximum….

Yesterday morning en route to Albuquerque on a small United Express puddle jumper I had the good fortune to run into a very nice flight attendant named Janel. On the line to board the plane I met and old birding/photography friend from Pennsylvania, a Brit by the name of Adrian Binns. He had a smaller rolling bag and he too was anxious to avoid the dreaded gate check and get it on the plane. The flight was nearly full. The flight attendant kindly allowed Adrian to put his bag under the seat in front of him. I waited and was happy to see the next-to-last two seats on the left side of the plane unoccupied. Perfecto. It was a hassle getting it under the seats but it worked, and there was lots of room for my feet.

Then, just a moment before the door shut, a couple got on. They were sitting together in guess what row… I wrestled my bag out and walked forward unsure of what to do besides gate-check it. Then I noticed that the seat next to Adrian was empty. He kindly took my bag and since it was impossible to get it under the seat without extensive maneuvering simply stood it up in front of the seat next to him. I was a bit concerned that the flight attendant would hassle us and justifiably so. But she walked up and down for her pre-flight checks and did not utter a sound.

I got her e-mail address and will be sending her a print of my windblown Monet/Dahlia blur. Sometimes you just gotta love it.

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8 comments to Air Travel With Big Lenses: Dealing With Puddle Jumpers

  • Joel Haas

    Looking forward to all these tips on upcoming trip to Bosque on SW Airlines. Pray for me.

  • John Snodgrass


    These stories and advice are like reliving life. You are so accurate in the detail of presentation and response. I think the over-riding winning aspect to your strategy is to let them have the authority to do what you would like with a smile and pleasant and respectful presentation. I took your advice many years ago and have not hit a snag yet! Thanks for sharing. Very valuable info for those who have not been there yet.


  • David Policansky

    Thanks for the tips, Artie. Looks like you arrived in NM just in time for some snow, even at Bosque. I hope it didn’t interfere with your travel and that it makes for some glorious photo opportunities.

  • Do you have any interesting TSA stories as well to tell?

    Like I learned from you, I’ve always put my gear into those wool caps,
    all nicely snugged as a bug in a rug in my Pelican case. This was years
    ago before 3rd party covers really took off.

    I was flying out of McAllen, TX airport. Case went thru the scanner and
    the TSA agent noticed all of the caps. She asked me what was in them. I
    told her photography equipment. She told me I would have to take everything
    out so she could be sure there weren’t any drugs. I’m like, are you serious?
    So I started to unload. Thankfully after two caps, I think she felt a little
    sorry for me and let me go.


  • Bill Goodhew

    I used the camera vest trick in Africa successfully. I got 2 bodies & 3 lenses in it, even a 100-400 in an inside pocket! Of course I couldnt’t zip it up, but no prob. On the way back I took good advice – in Africa, for $20 US you can take an elephant on board…

  • Thanks for the info about the rolling camera bags and puddle jumpers.I have a Think Tank Airport bag and can’t afford business class (like you) but have only had one problem taking it on board. The attendant told me it wouldn’t fit and I told her I had been on the same plane/airline 7 days before with no problem. Fit easily. She still disagreed and I said what about the crew closet right next to where we were standing. She said try it but it won’t fit — it did easily. She then said the door wouldn’t close. I pushed slightly against the bag and shut the door easily.
    For two foreign and one Alaska trip I have used a plain backpack with the the wool military caps and LensCoat you suggested before. Now getting older the 30LB backpack is getting too heavy and I want to use the roller instead. I will follow your conversation suggestions!

  • Jay

    Out of curiousity, have you ever found it expedient/useful to slip the baggage handler a buck or two when dealing with them, or is it all based on your charm and experience dealing with people?